9/15/2011 10:01:00 AM WORD OF FAITH Our understanding of God
BY REV. ROGER KARBAN
FROM A READING FOR SEPT. 18, 25TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.' Isaiah 55:8
Unless we know something about the community for whom Matthew writes, Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 20:1-16a) makes little sense.
After hearing this passage proclaimed in the old Sunday lectionary, my pro-union father warned us that the landowner's behavior was the main reason unions are essential: Without them, employers can pay whatever they want to whomever they want, whenever they want.
Though I presume my father (in agreement with the Catholic Church's teachings on social justice) was correct, Matthew wasn't writing about workers' rights.
Matthew composed his Gospel for second- and third-generation Jewish/Christians. By the time he writes in the late 70s, an unforeseen phenomenon is playing out: A Church which had begun almost 50 years before as a Jewish religious movement was nearing a point at which Jews were becoming a minority.
Gentiles were always welcome in Christianity; but, since Jesus was originally regarded simply as a reformer of Judaism, non-Jewish converts were expected to embrace Judaism and its 613 laws before they could begin imitating Jesus' death and resurrection.
This practice continued only into the late 40s, when liberals like Paul of Tarsus began baptizing Gentiles without insisting they convert to Judaism and its laws. Though Gentile/Christians appreciated this turnabout, lots of Jewish/Christians had problems with it.
They had submitted to circumcision and the responsibility of keeping those regulations. In their minds, this newfangled way of bringing Gentiles into the faith was unjust.
That's when Matthew's Jesus comes on the scene with His story of a landowner who pays each of his workers the same amount of money, even though some worked 12 hours while others worked one or two!
When confronted over his blatantly unjust wage scale, the employer reminds his workers he did nothing illegal or unjust: He paid the amount each picker and trimmer had agreed upon. They could only challenge his generosity, not his breach of contract.
In other words, Jewish/ Christians who still were obliged to follow the Mosaic laws were not being treated unjustly by God. As Jews, they had made that commitment at the foot of Sinai 1,200 years before. God simply was demonstrating generosity by not demanding the same commitment from Gentiles.
God's not us
At its core, this message is fundamental to our faith: God rarely works in black/white, either/or patterns. God's never bought into a "one size fits all" theology.
Deutero-Isaiah discovered this aspect of divine behavior (Isaiah 55:6-9). The same God who is as close to us as our breath can, at times, be as far away from us "as the heavens are above the earth."
The prophet frequently encountered a God who is immanent and transcendent at the same time. Some of what God does fits into our puny minds; a lot of it doesn't.
No wonder Paul struggles in our Philippians (1:20-24,27a) passage. When he first began to follow the risen Jesus, he presumed the Parousia was just around the corner. But as the years went on and Jesus' Second Coming was delayed, the Apostle was forced to ask the questions we find in this reading.
This is a great occasion to reflect on how our understanding of God has changed since we first learned about God as children. I presume that some aspects we like; others create problems.