I still remember the definition of
"mystery" I learned in my grade school religion classes. A mystery
was something that you'd never understand, no matter how long you studied
or thought about it.
I also remember the story accompanying the
definition. It described St. Augustine of Hippo walking along the seashore
meditating on the Trinity. He encounters a small boy pouring buckets of sea
water into a hole he had dug in the sand.
When the famous theologian asks what he's
doing, the boy responds, "Emptying the sea into my hole." Pointing
out the impossibility of his endeavor, Augustine receives the warning, 'Neither
can you, Augustine, get the Trinity into your mind."
After hearing that, whenever someone mentioned
that a particular dogma or article of faith was a mystery, I simply pushed
the concept out of my mind and never thought of it again.
We find many mysteries in Scripture, but,
contrary to my approach, our sacred authors presume we'll think about them
for the rest of our lives - not because we're theologians, but because
we're followers of God. Biblical mysteries aren't holy brain-teasers;
they're concepts that convey the tensions embedded in the everyday living
of our faith.
We hear about three such tensions in Sunday's
three readings. Deutero-Isaiah begins the reflection, bringing up a subject
that always bugs those who give their lives to God: His immanence and
transcendence (Is 55: 6-9).
On one hand, no other being is closer to us
than God. As Faith Hill puts it in a song: "I can feel you
breathe." The prophet doesn't express his experience in those terms,
but the concept is the same. "Seek Yahweh," he commands,
"while He may be found, call Him while He is near."
But, on the other hand, no one is further away
from us than God: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your
ways my ways, says Yahweh. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so
high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts."
In any relationship with God, it's almost
never either/or; it's more frequently both/and.
Paul finds himself in a similar dilemma (Phil
1: 20-24, 27). Which is better: to die and be with Jesus in heaven, or to
continue to live and minister to His communities here on earth?
"I am strongly attracted to both," he
says. "I long to be free from this life and be with Christ, for that is
the far better thing; yet it is more urgent that I remain alive for your
Our faith usually brings us more questions than
it provides answers.
Free to act
Matthew's Jewish/Christian community is also
experiencing a faith-given tension (Mt 20: 1-16). If Jesus' dying and
rising is the saving event all Jews have been anticipating, how come
Gentiles are now being welcomed into discipleship without first having to
become Jews? They're receiving benefits for which they never worked.
It's no accident this particular parable is
found only in Matthew. He's the only evangelist writing for a community
for whom the entry of Gentiles into the Church is a problem. Instead of
concentrating on the "fairness" of the estate owner's actions,
Jesus invites us to zero in on his generosity: "I am free to do as I
please with my money, am I not? Or are you envious because I am
No matter how hard we try, no one can
"psyche out" God. God's actions are beyond anything our human
brains can conjure up. That seems to be why Jesus closes with the
disconcerting statement: "The last shall be first and the first shall
There are many days when I'd like to
encounter some kid on a beach, encouraging me to stop thinking about
tension-filled situations. But, instead of the boy, I keep encountering God's