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.

Mystery moments

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 sakes."

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 generous?"

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 be last."

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 tension-filled word.