Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings:- God, our Bible insists, is not like us. We like to think of him as a decent sort of person, dispensing justice impartially and rewarding those who behave well. Yet from Old to New Testaments this idea of God is palpably untrue! For the Jews the Old Testament’s picture of God right from their origins with Abraham, through Egyptian captivity and Babylonian slavery has been that God loves Israel and cares for her despite her apostasy and appalling sins; her experience has been that despite their continual failure in fidelity God fostered their needs, going out of his way to destroy other nations in order to assist Israel. Anyone at all familiar with the Easter Vigil will be party to the rejoicing of Israel when God smashes her oppressor: “horse and rider you have thrown into the sea” Not much of the impartial judge here then.
Our gospel readings recently from Matthew; the Parables of the Kingdom, including that for today, (Matt 20:1-16) are all about God’s gross partiality to some and the rejection of others, be they foreigners; wise and foolish virgins; last weeks foully behaved debtor; and today’s day labourers, are all instructive about the Kingdom and God’s attitude to us. Good students of industrial law we protest, like the first labourers that those who have worked the longest deserve the higher wage; but Jesus will have none of it, the gift of the Kingdom is given with complete disregard as to worthiness or obligation, it is about God’s prerogative and emphasises his utter difference from us for God’s gifts are given to deserving and undeserving alike, out of love. We meet this time and again in Jesus’ dealings with his disciples as well as his parables and what comes out is our lack of appreciation of the difference between us and God whose mercy is endless, despite our repeated failures to live in a god-like manner. Heaven it appears may be full of some quite horrible people, the Gaddafi’s and Stalin’s of this world! Any ideas we might cherish therefore of our moral rectitude and rights go out of the window, exposed as 19th century moralising which has nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian religion. We are back in a much more ancient world, which understood rather better than we do the great gap between divinity and humanity and the capacity of divinity to behave in ways which utterly defy our pseudo moralising.
Second Isaiah, (Isa 55:6-9) writing from exile in Babylonin the 6th century BC understood this too. We have to remember that the school of Isaiah, along with all the major prophets of Israel, saw their nation’s shame, invasion and captivity not simply in terms of misfortune and wicked oppression by foreigners but as the judgement of God. His call in consequence is not to call for a moral revolution or indeed any form of resistance, but the acceptance by sinners of their total dependence on the God of Israel. “Let the wicked man…turn back to the Lord who will take pity on him, to our God who is rich in forgiving; for my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways……the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways.” Ancient writers, unlike us, knew their place and recognised their task as that of calling the nation back to its God. Certainly, cleaning up their act might be a demonstration of their intention to loyalty, but fundamentally morality was not at the very heart of their teaching for they recognised their total dependence on God. Right behaviour is but an appropriate action on the part of one who has been redeemed and not the essence of our relationship with the redeemer.
We see something of this expressed in Paul’s longing for God in his Letter to the Philippians (1:20-24; 27), where Paul recognises that the heart of our relationship with God lies in complete union, body and soul, and longs for death as the achieving of this goal. He has accepted however that this longing for God requires his total acceptance of his master’s will and that God may require him to stay alive a little longer in order for him to carry on taking the faith to pagan converts to Christianity. Here then we see a renunciation of self and a taking on of the persona of Christ as Paul writes a letter redolent with affection for this community which of all the recipients of his letters appears to have entered into the spirit of Christian commitment. Remember, it is to these fellow Christians he writes those amazing words: “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus”. (Phil 2:5) He stresses how closely identified they have become to Christ. Here then in this tiny community of Christians stuck up at the top of Greece there were a group for whom the penny seemed to have dropped, they, like Paul their mentor were thoroughly convicted of the Christian message. When therefore he admonishes them with “avoid anything in your everyday lives that would be unworthy of the gospel of Christ”, this is not fundamentally about morality, but rather about lives soaked in the gospel message. Paul wrote this letter whilst imprisoned, most likely in Ephesus and anticipated that he would be executed, so his letter has an urgency and the clear sightedness of those at their most focussed and his intention was to keep at fever-pitch the faith of his fellow believers.