21st September 2014
The first reading is part of a heart-warming poem. It was written about the time that the people were going to be released from captivity by a friendly emperor, Cyrus. It attributes this release to the love of God, who has a special relationship of love for people, a relationship traditionally called a covenant. It is a two-way agreement: God will look after the people, and the people will live in a way pleasing to God. But the agreement is not conditional; it is not like God saying ‘if you keep my commandments I will be your protector and god;’ it is unconditional on God’s side: ‘I will be your God, so you will be my people however you respond to me.’ In the part of the poem we read today, the prophet is announcing to the people, God’s call to them; it is a call to give up any wickedness and turn their lives towards Him. But the prophet is also emphasising that God’s ways are mysterious, for He does not depend on the people behaving well for Him to love them and to be their God; there is no way they can deserve or merit God’s love, it is generous, free and everlasting. The extract is chosen for this contrast between God’s ways and ours, an idea taken up in the Gospel reading for today.
The second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. They were a well organised community that were very supportive of the work of Paul, who had first established their lively group. They had made many donations to Paul and felt a close relationship with him and had him in their prayers, although they had not seen that much of him. Now, he is in prison with a potential death sentence. He writes to them very lovingly, but in the extract we have for today’s reading he speaks of the possibility of his death. He is not unlike Job in the Old Testament who was more concerned about doing what was right than about whether he should live or die. In a way a Christian wants to be as closely united with God as will be the case after death, but also a good Christian wants to live on here to spread the good news of God’s love to others. Paul expresses these intimate feelings to the Philippians whom he would like to visit again, and encourages them to live as Christians should for they have the Good News of God’s love for them and for all.
The gospel tells of a parable that is only recorded in Matthew’s gospel. It was then and is now a very controversial message: that you don’t ever get what you deserve from God, even if you feel you think you should and that someone else whom you think should not get anything, does. The parable has a point that is found again and again in the bible and especially in the gospels; its bluntest expression might be the words at the end of our extract “the last shall be first and the first last.” It is noteworthy that the story doesn’t just recount what happened but also what thoughts and emotions there were. Workers were hired for the day at various times throughout the day, even as late as one hour before the end of the working day. They were all paid a fair wage, we are told, but in fact all got the same amount. This is where the emotions come in: the full-day workers expected to get more for their longer shift than all the others. This apparent injustice is how God deals with us – with all people. Christians and non-Christians, saints and sinners, life-long do-gooders and deathbed conversions, God loves all people to the same degree. Truly it is said, ‘God’s ways are not our ways’ – the climax of our first reading. So we should not live good lives in order to win God’s love, but we should be good as a spontaneous response to the enormous love God has for us!