2 Oct 2011
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4) In the name …
Did you read in the newspaper recently about the father in one of these war-torn, lawless countries whose home was surrounded by a gang of thugs? When he saw that he was surrounded, he sent three of his hired hands out the door to try and negotiate with them. Before they were even out of his sight, they were shot down and murdered. Inside the house the father sees what has just happened. After a little while, he decides to send a larger group of workers out the front door with the hope that maybe they could talk with these trigger-happy mercenaries. But once again, the guys barely make it a few feet out the front door before they’re mowed down. I think the reason this story made the newspaper, though, is because of the father’s next decision. He’s already seen two groups of his hired hands shot to death before his eyes. Neither group ever got close enough to even start negotiations. But the father was getting desperate and so he figured he would next send his own son out the front door. Maybe these thugs, he thought, would have more respect for his own child than for the workers he had sent out ahead of him. The father opens the door and sends the son out into the courtyard and before he can take even a few steps, he’s shot down just like the others.
I imagine by now you may have figured out that the news story is fictional. But for a while, before you realized this, were you surprised and upset by the actions of the father? Were you wondering how either naïve or stupid he could be? Surrounded by thugs, he sends out one group of workers who are shot and killed immediately, a second group is sent and meet the same fate, and then the father inconceivably thinks to himself, “Well, maybe they’ll treat my son differently.” When the son gets hit, isn’t it natural to think: “You idiot! What were you thinking?”
Now think back to Jesus’ time, to the first time anyone ever heard this story. To them it would have sounded like news, not like Gospel. It would have sounded current, not like church. And they would have been offended just like we would be if this were a real news account from one of today’s newspapers. They would be shocked at the father’s actions, and the only thing that protects us from being stunned and upset today is that it’s Bible. We don’t let Bible surprise us, amaze us, or even offend us anymore. And that’s why I started with the little lie of telling this story as current event rather than as Bible so that maybe we could hear the words of Jesus with a fresh perspective.
If I may, let me put it as bluntly as I possibly can because Jesus is putting it as bluntly as He possibly can: Do you think that God is stupid? It’s obvious in Jesus’ parable today that the landowner represents God. If we’re offended by the landowner’s actions, Jesus is then asking us to take the next step and compare them with the actions of God the Father. Are we offended by God’s actions, or have we become so complacent when we think about Him, that only God would not upset us by these kinds of actions? God has sent His servants into the world as patriarchs, prophets and kings, and more often than not their stories end in disaster rather than triumph. After thousands of years and untold unnamed servants who acted on God’s behalf, and yet to no avail, God then decides to try again by sending His Son, and we all know how that story ends. When these events are outlined in an ordinary, human context we shake our heads in disbelief, but when these events are told about God, does it bother us?
If God is not naïve or stupid, then why in the world would He act like the landowner in this parable of Jesus? Is it because His love for us knows no bounds? Is it because His love for us is illogical, even absurd? That it makes no human sense at all? Jesus ends the story by telling us that this has been God’s plan, that “‘by the Lord has this been done …’” (Matt. 21:42) What we think of as absurd in a human context is actually the ineffable, unfailing, unending love of God for us. It’s a love that would be scandalous in any other situation, but Jesus says to us today, that’s exactly what the love of God is like. It makes no sense. It knows no limits. It is so selfless and self-giving that if we really take the time to think about it we have to be amazed and even shocked.
But as in all of Jesus’ parables, it’s not just about God. It’s about us too. When we realize how scandalously devoted God is to us, what’s going to be our response? Before we answer that, let’s talk about Paul’s admonition from today’s Epistle: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, Rejoice!” Let’s put those words in context. Paul is in a jail cell fearing for his life. Not only that, his faithful companion Epaphroditus was just then recovering from a near fatal illness. He writes about this in the Epistle, and then gives the command to rejoice. He’s obviously working with a different set of standards and goals than we’re used to. If I were sitting in jail and my friend had just come close to death, it would be hard to preach about rejoicing. But Paul’s outlook is just about as confusing as the story about God’s selfless love. At first glance, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In other words, Paul has adopted the story of God as his own. Paul is not only amazed by the ways of God; Paul imitates the ways of God. And all of a sudden rejoicing is separated from good fortune and is bound together, instead, with the joy that comes from really believing in the ridiculous love of God for all of us. When we can believe in that, and trust in that, then rejoicing is so much more than those pleasant few occasions of good fortune and extraordinary luck.
So rejoice. Not only because of our blessings, but because each of us is loved in a scandalous way by almighty God. Let that love change us, if even in small ways. Let that love surprise us. Let it leap out of the Bible and astonish us, so that when we can take the love of God seriously, then we will understand how Paul preached “Rejoice” while sitting in jail. For this change to take place, this awakening, let us pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo