Tag Archives: parable

28 August: Augustine on respect for the bodies of the dead, II.

This early XIX Century angel watched over a grave in Wales which was accidentally broken during works to the Churchyard. It serves as an introduction to this extract from the City of God by the Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine. He is writing as the Roman Empire is collapsing across Europe and the Mediterranean, including his native North Africa. There is much violence and bodies of the dead lie unburied, much to the distress of his people. But God can and will restore and reunite soul and body, however broken, scattered and desecrated the latter may have been.

Before turning to Augustine, let’s pray for all those buried in Saint Tydfil’s churchyard, and all buried without a marker, even without a mourner. Augustine begins his reflection with the story of Dives and Lazarus from Luke 16.

His crowd of domestics furnished the purple-clad Dives with a funeral gorgeous in the eye of man; but in the sight of God that was a more sumptuous funeral which the ulcerous pauper received at the hands of the angels, who did not carry him out to a marble tomb, but bore him aloft to Abraham’s bosom.

The men against whom I have undertaken to defend the city of God laugh at all this. But even their own philosophers have despised a careful burial; and often whole armies have fought and fallen for their earthly country without caring to inquire whether they would be left exposed on the field of battle, or become the food of wild beasts. Of this noble disregard of entombment poetry has well said: “He who has no tomb has the sky for his vault.” How much less ought they to insult over the unburied bodies of Christians, to whom it has been promised that the flesh itself shall be restored, and the body formed anew, all the members of it being gathered not only from the earth, but from the most secret recesses of any other of the elements in which the dead bodies of men have lain hid!

From “City of God: 1:12 by Saint Augustine, via Kindle.

Strasbourg Cathedral, Christ triumphant rescuing Adam and Eve from Hell.

The artists of Strasbourg Cathedral certainly believed that, ‘He descended into Hell, on the Third Day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father from whence he shall judge the living and the dead’. Here it is, the harrowing of Hell, and our first parents the first to be rescued, blessed with beautiful, renewed bodies; a powerful envisioning of the threshold of eternal life.

Perhaps we find it harder to imagine that moment than our forebears did, but perhaps we should go past the abstract in thinking about eternity. There is still room in this brave new world for Christ to lead Adam by the hand, physically; and for Adam to half turn to his wife, to hold her hand, and feel her physical arm encircling his back. They are just as human, and more so, than when they first lived upon earth. And so will we be transformed.

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23 July: Time, illusion, dream.

We at Agnellus Mirror do not claim to agree totally with everything we publish, but we hope that somebody out there finds it interesting. We questioned, no, disagreed with Tagore at the beginning of the month, and today we find him interesting but writing from a privileged point of view. Perhaps we should, each of us, stand outside the current of time, occasionally. But who stands beside us and shares our inner world? We offer a response to Tagore at the end of the post. What are your feelings?

SHELIDAH, 24th June 1894.

I have been only four days here, but, having lost count of the hours, it seems such a long while, I feel that if I were to return to Calcutta to-day I should find much of it changed—as if I alone had been standing still outside the current of time, unconscious of the gradually changing position of the rest of the world. The fact is that here, away from Calcutta, I live in my own inner world, where the clocks do not keep ordinary time; where duration is measured only by the intensity of the feelings; where, as the outside world does not count the minutes, moments change into hours and hours into moments. So it seems to me that the subdivisions of time and space are only mental illusions. Every atom is immeasurable and every moment infinite.

There is a Persian story which I was greatly taken with when I read it as a boy—I think I understood, even then, something of the underlying idea, though I was a mere child. To show the illusory character of time, a faquir put some magic water into a tub and asked the King to take a dip. The King no sooner dipped his head in than he found himself in a strange country by the sea, where he spent a good long time going through a variety of happenings and doings. He married, had children, his wife and children died, he lost all his wealth, and as he writhed under his sufferings he suddenly found himself back in the room, surrounded by his courtiers. On his proceeding to revile the faquir for his misfortunes, they said: “But, Sire, you have only just dipped your head in, and raised it out of the water!”

The whole of our life with its pleasures and pains is in the same way enclosed in one moment of time. However long or intense we may feel it to be while it lasts, as soon as we have finished our dip in the tub of the world, we shall find how like a slight, momentary dream the whole thing has been.

Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore

We are not simply writhing under our sufferings in this life, dipping into the rub of the world. Eighty years of life are indeed as nothing compared to the light years of the Universe’s existence, but they are years of responsibility to each other, to creation, and to the Creator.

Then shall the king say to them that shall be on his right hand: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 

For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. 

Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee? 

And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.

Luke 24: 34-40.

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13 July, Seeds III: first the shoot, then the ear …

Ears begining to appear on the maize crop.

Jesus also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come’.

(Mk 4:26-29, translation: The New Jerusalem Bible).


Maybe readers of these posts are wondering why I’ve taken such a round-about path to this beautiful parable of the seed growing by itself. It’s because as I pondered that parable this time it became for me like a vine with tendrils reaching in many directions. I found that it reaches back to that bad day Jesus had with the scribes and with his relatives (Mark 3:20-30). This parable has a powerful message for them – and for all those who have wilfully hardened their hearts against Jesus and his teaching. The passage about the seeds’ independent growth affirms, in the face of any suggestion to the contrary, that no amount of human – or demonic – obstruction will ultimately prevent the word of God from fulfilling its divine destiny in the wider world. God’s word will succeed, Jesus teaches in this parable. Oh, we remain free; there will be those who refuse to accept him, and he never uses force, but God’s word will ultimately achieve the end for which it entered the world in Jesus.


But there’s more. Not only does this parable reach back with a strong message for those who opposed Jesus. It also, as we said yesterday, reaches back to add a dimension to the passage from Mark 4: 1-9 about the different types of soil. Let’s think about that.


As I confessed in these posts, the parable of the different kinds of soil leaves me with an uneasy feeling. I am always reminded when I read it that I’m a flawed being, a sinner. I see again that as far as good soil is concerned, I am very a very patchy piece of earth, at best. Clearing out the stones and weeds and brambles will be a work in progress until I die. But, the good news is that I don’t think Jesus means the parable about the soil to be the last word on the subject of seeds and soil and the kingdom. It’s important to remember that no parable encompasses the mystery of the kingdom in its entirety. The different parables are like the different facets of a diamond, each one reflecting the light differently, each one contributing in a unique but partial way to the beauty of the whole. So, to my relief, I realise that the parable about the different kinds of soil actually needs the parable about the seed growing by itself in order to be understood.

And this makes me very happy. The parable about the seed growing by itself is a good one for times when we ourselves are feeling discouraged about our weaknesses and failures and sins. In this parable, the Lord is telling us that the kingdom is not about being perfect – about being good soil twenty-four/seven. In fact, it’s not all about us. It is about him, about his word. And secondly, it’s not about us achieving personal goodness all by ourselves for God, climbing to heaven by our own muscle and effort. Not at all. This parable is about the ‘muscle,’ the intrinsic power, the unstoppability of God’s word within us.

So, take heart. Take heart, too, if you are going through a period of deep loss and grief and it feels as though your heart has become completely barren. This parable is for you, too. The seed of the word has been scattered within you, and now it is doing what it does best: ‘night and day, while we sleep and while we are awake, the seed is sprouting and growing.’ You cannot see what the seed is doing below the surface of that bare, black soil, but Jesus assures us here that God’s life in us is progressing according to the creative and ever-active love of God. God’s seed is all-powerful and, as this parable suggests, not as fussy about soil as we might have feared. It will quietly get on with its growth – how, we do not know, says Jesus. And we don’t have to know. The parable promises, however, that there will come a time when we will discover the green shoots of the kingdom beginning to emerge from within our heart – a sign that even in our own seemingly barren and ever imperfect and weedy life, God’s seed will eventually produce ‘the full grain in the ear. And the harvest will come.’ This is reason to sing with gratitude. God’s life is in us. His seed is so powerful, so tenacious of life, so willing to be itself, so supremely able to be itself, that we needn’t worry.

We began this reflection by looking at some of Jesus’ own human difficulties: the misunderstanding of family and the intense hostility of the scribes. We had a glimpse into his humanity and saw him as a feeling being, searching for those who would sincerely respond to his loving teachings. We saw beautiful parables emerge from a man like us, with emotions capable of being hurt by rejection. And yet, he ends his teaching that day not with a message of despair, and certainly not of anger, but with a message of tenderness and profound encouragement for us. This is what Our Lord is like.

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12 July, Seeds II: becoming the good soil.

abel.barrow

We are heading toward a reflection on Mark 4: 26-29. Yesterday we looked at some of the preceding scripture passages in order to understand more about the context within which the beautiful parable of the seed growing by itself emerges. I ended yesterday’s post inviting my readers to spend a day with Mark 4: 1-9 – the parable of the sower, sometimes called the parable of the soil. What light does this shed on Mark 4: 26-29?

In both passages, Jesus uses seeds as a metaphor, but the two passages are very different. In Mark 4:1-9, the emphasis is more on the soil and its capacity to receive the seed. If you recall, our reflection yesterday found Jesus on a bad day – he’d had run-ins both with the scribes and with his own relatives. It’s no accident, then, that Jesus talks about receptivity. – for he’d been struggling against incomprehension and closed-mindedness all day long. To illustrate his teaching he uses the metaphor of various types of unwelcoming soil.

And here I have a confession to make. The parable about the different types of soil – the rocky, the shallow, the thorny, and finally the good soil – makes me nervous. I can’t help it. I try to tell myself that Jesus was perhaps directing the parable against those who were hostile to him. I try to convince myself that although I am far from being perfect, I am certainly not hostile toward Jesus. But, it doesn’t help, because I also know that Jesus’ parables are always profoundly meaningful on many levels, and they all apply to all of us. That’s the trouble. I can easily see myself in this one. I am capable of being all of the different kinds of soil Jesus describes here: at times, hard and rocky (stubborn and hard-headed), other times, shallow (immature and given to sudden enthusiasms that don’t last), still other moments find me thorny (preoccupied by worry) and, yes, thanks to the grace of God, I know that I have been at times receptive to the seed of the word – and I am grateful for that grace. This parable is about me and should not be dismissed. And I hope, with God’s grace, to become the good soil all the time, or at least more of the time. But, the parable still makes me nervous. Whenever I read it, I wonder if I will ever really manage to become the person the Lord wants me to be, and to be good soil, rich, velvety and constantly nourishing for the seed of the Word.

And then, I read further in chapter four of Mark and I come upon the parable of the seed growing by itself. A truly wonderful thing about scripture is that scripture interprets itself. In other words, there is a unity between biblical texts; passages of scripture throw light on other passages of scripture – so if there is a section that seems to be difficult, count on it, there will be another part that provides the help we need. Mark 4:26 to 29 provides that help.

Let’s pause here for another day and spend it looking at Mark 4: 26 to 29. Perhaps you will find balm in that passage, too. Tomorrow we’ll talk about it.

Illustration: Abel preparing the soil with compost and hard work.

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11 July, Seeds I: Radiantly sane but eminently rational.

carrotseed2
Preparing to sow carrot seeds

Welcome back to Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey. My two and a half year old grandson has been singing ‘Oats and beans and barley grow’ all around the town, so this reflection is timely for at least one of her readers! And it is the feast of Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine communities, including Minster. Happy Feast day, Sisters!

Jesus also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come.’

(Mark 4:26-29, translation: The New Jerusalem Bible),


Whenever I read the parable of the seed growing by itself (given in full above) I send up a silent cheer to the Lord, praising him joyfully. It is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament. But the Holy Spirit tends to give even favourite texts a new twist every time I read them. A few days ago, as I read these lines from Mark’s gospel for my lectio divina, I realised that I needed to explore the context within which Jesus first tells this parable and not treat it as though it stood alone, unconnected to the story told by the preceding passages.

The first thing I realised, then, when I looked back at texts from chapter three of Mark is that the time-frame is quite early in the public ministry of Jesus, but already there are thorny problems for him (see Mark 3:21f.). Some of Jesus’ own relatives seem determined to treat him as if he were a child. This might be amusing (don’t we all go through this at some point when we are young adults and our immediate family hasn’t quite caught on?) but for the fact that this kind of treatment of Jesus gravely undermines his authority with his audience. Moreover, the relatives ‘set out to take charge of him, convinced that he is out of his mind’. In other words, they make a scene. How embarrassing for Jesus (he is at least thirty years old now) – and, yes, how infuriating (or it would be to me). And, to make it worse, it’s almost impossible to manage this kind of situation without looking bad. Either Jesus must submit to their infantilising treatment and go off with them meekly – like a big baby (unthinkable), or he must work out some way to try to insist on his adult status – and his sanity – without being disrespectful to them. What a hopeless –and very human – mess, I think to myself.

But before Jesus has even had a chance to begin, before anyone’s had a chance to turn around, the scribes get in the act and decide to pick a fight with Jesus. They choose this moment viciously to accuse him of using Satan’s own power to cast out devils (see Mark 3:22f.). Regardless, however, of the distress he may be feeling with regard to his relatives, Jesus rises to the scribes’ challenge and handles their accusation calmly, with consummate logic and courtesy, pointing out reasonably, but without a hint of arrogance or sarcasm, the absurdity of the very idea of Satan casting out Satan. “Take note, you relatives who think Jesus is out of his mind,” I crow silently: “Jesus’ mind is not only radiantly sane but eminently rational. He needs no one to take charge of him. He is able to take care of himself.” And so, for the moment, the scribes and the relatives seem to be silenced. But we know – and Jesus would have known – that his troubles were only beginning.

This is where I begin to be aware of Jesus in a different way. He feels closer, somehow. I become, as I read and pray, much more conscious of Jesus as a feeling being. I notice that in the scriptural texts following this scene with the scribes, Jesus seems to be particularly wistful, even a little bit vulnerable, as he teaches another group of people. He seems to see that their desire to listen to him contrasts poignantly with the hostile attitudes he’s been encountering all day. He tenderly invites them to be his sister, his brother, his mother. I pause here. Jesus is capable of being wounded by rejection. I knew this before, but I know it in a new way now. This then becomes the moment that flows into Jesus’ beautiful parables about hearing the word. ‘The sower goes out to sow,’ he begins.

Let’s slow down for a bit and think. We have just accompanied Jesus through two difficult encounters: his relatives first, who think he is mad, and then the scribes, who think he is possessed. And now he sees us, sees that there are people who deeply want to listen to him.

He welcomes us. We come forward to sit near him. We are an intimate group, small enough that all of us can all see him. We are glad that when he begins to teach we will hear him easily, we will see his face and his eyes, watch the play of his features as he speaks his words of life to us with gentleness and love. We want to be his brother and sister and mother. We look at him with affection and smile, waiting for him to begin. Let’s see what he will say to us. He has a message for each person. And now I invite you to read Mark 4:1-9 and to keep this at heart until tomorrow. This passage prepares the way for the parable I have quoted at the beginning of this post.


I hope you will return tomorrow as we continue our reflection.

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19 October: Luke, a Nervous Evangelist, Part II

Second right in the bottom row: this could sum up the experience of the widow in Jesus’ parable that Sister Johanna is reflecting upon. ‘I’ve never felt so powerless in my life.’ Or further up: ‘I feel there is nothing to look forward to.’ It’s not something new to the Covid experience that makes people feel this way. 2,000 years ago, they must have said similar things to Jesus, and he put their experience into this parable, now opened anew for us by Sister Johanna.

We are looking at Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge, from Luke 18:1- 8. I recommend that you scroll back to yesterday’s post to catch up with us. We’re looking at an unusually playful parable, starring a curmudgeonly judge, and we’re wondering what Jesus is really getting at by presenting his ideas in this way. We find out by listening to the lines he allows the judge-curmudgeon to say, ‘… I have neither fear of God nor respect for any human person….’ This phrase comes twice in the short parable – the first time Jesus himself uses it to describe the judge, and the second time, he lets the judge say it to describe himself. Repetition is a device used to drive home a home truth. Jesus wants us to hear these words. What is the truth that they contain, then?

I think, first, the words tell us that Jesus understands what it is like for us to pray and not feel heard. He understands how, in our life with God, it sometimes feels as though God himself is the uncaring one, who delays and delays to help us, even though we ‘cry to him day and night.’ When we are going through such an experience, we feel alone, and it seems to us that no one in the history of the world has been through this kind of desolation except us. But in fact, Jesus knows that this is an archetypal experience. Jesus’ listeners at the time would have had it, we have it, all praying people in between us and them have had it. So we can nod our heads as Jesus’ first hearers must have done. Perhaps some in his audience will have begun to cry as Jesus’ words went home and exposed a deeply painful wound or a long-standing problem that felt overwhelming. Jesus is saying here, “I know. It sometimes feels like this when you pray to God for help. He seems unheeding. Here’s me, praying night and day, and nothing changes. Does God care?”

Second: Jesus in this parable is giving us permission to admit that we have these kinds of thoughts and feelings about God. Sometimes it is very difficult not to think of God as anything other than an extremely unjust judge. But why should Jesus encourage us to admit that we feel this way? Because faith is not about pretending to possess a level of ‘holiness’ that we do not really possess. We will return to the subject of faith at the end of our reflections tomorrow. For now, we can say that our faith in God is what allows us to tell God exactly how it feels to be me right now, and, as such, to tell him what we think of him. God knows this already, of course. But perhaps we don’t. Faith is sometimes about discovering who we are, as much as it is about discovering who God is. So, the Lord wants us to tell God all about it, with as much honesty as we can summon, while still hanging on to God for dear life.

The last nine words of the previous paragraph are vital. In light of them, let’s look at the character of the widow in this parable. What role does she play? A widow, in biblical shorthand, represents those who are neediest in society, those who have few human resources, who are alone and must fight hard in order even to be noticed by the current power-base. In this parable we find just such a fighter – a woman in whom the curmudgeonly judge meets his match. Feisty and determined, and as crabby and calculating in her way as he was, she “…kept on coming to him and saying, ‘I want justice from you against my enemy.’” Do I detect a hint of falsetto in Jesus’ rendering of these words? Maybe we all know the type of character the widow represents. Possibly, if we know her well, we are a bit afraid of her. But, don’t we admire her when some film or television drama features a character like this, who refuses to be the victim of whatever or whoever is trying to make her one?

We’re going to pause again here and return tomorrow to continue our meditation.

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18 October: Luke, a Nervous Evangelist, Part I.

Jesuit Chapel, Hales Place, Canterbury.

We can tip our hats to Saint Luke, whose feast day it is, as we enjoy Sister Johanna’s three part reflection on one of the parables: down below the surface are riches not at first apparent.

Then Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. ‘There was a judge in a certain town,’ he said, ‘who had neither fear of God nor respect for anyone. In the same town there was also a widow who kept on coming to him and saying, “I want justice from you against my enemy!” For a long time he refused, but at last he said to himself, “Even though I have neither fear of God nor respect for any human person, I must give this widow her just rights since she keeps pestering me, or she will come and slap me in the face.”’

And the Lord said, ‘You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now, will not God see justice done to his elect if they keep calling to him day and night even though he still delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’

[Luke 18: 1-8; The New Jerusalem Bible, Study Edition.]

I don’t often detect one of the evangelists in a moment of editorial nervousness, but St Luke seems to be having one here. Jesus is clearly having a bit of fun with his audience – something that doesn’t often happen, considering the wariness of the religious establishment as they struggled with Jesus’ unusual teachings and personality. But in this passage, Jesus is probably talking to his disciples rather than the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Lk 17: 22), and he seems relaxed and ready to tease a group of people who, he sensed, were receptive to his teachings. St Luke steps in, however, with a pre-emptive strike, and tells us what Jesus’ parable means before we have a chance to read it and get the wrong impression. No giggling allowed here, St. Luke seems to say. Well, wait a minute, I want to say to Luke. Surely, all great orators know that occasionally it is good to make your point by surprising your audience with humour – make them laugh and they’re yours. Jesus was no stranger to rhetorical techniques. Can we not admit a smiling Jesus into the series of images we have of him? For this brief parable is a remarkably playful one. I imagine Jesus not only smiling at times as he tells his story, but even acting out the parts of the judge and the widow with subtle comedic skill. For the first surprise is this: Jesus hauls a curmudgeon out of his hat and calls him the judge. Second surprise: who does the judge-curmudgeon represent? None other than God himself. What a daring move on Jesus’ part. God, whose holy Name, Yahweh, is so sacred that the Jews were forbidden even to say it aloud, is likened here to a crusty old judge, crabby and somewhat calculating.

It’s possible, of course, that Jesus plays this very straight. But whatever the case: Jesus’ caricature of the Most High God presupposes at least two things in his listeners. One, Jesus assumes that they have a pretty sophisticated sense of humour about religion itself. And two, he takes it for granted that he is talking to people who have an ongoing prayer-life. As such, they will inevitably have come up with some searing questions about God and the way he answers – or doesn’t seem to answer – our prayer. Jesus is playful here, but in no sense is he dismissive. Rather, he uses his playfulness tenderly in order to address what he knows is a very serious matter.

We will continue our reflection tomorrow.

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10 August: Some people pray …

Frank Solanki is a perennially productive poet with a great sense of humour that does not hide his serious side. I thought I’d share this poem with you. Just click on the link below, and let’s pray that the gift of gratitude be given to us all and received and shared by us all.

The tradition of using the funny side to approach a profound message goes back to the parables of Jesus, in fact to the crazy things the prophets did, like Elijah or Jeremiah.

So click on the link, for here comes Frank!

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18 December: Stay Awake!

“Stay Awake” is a good Advent Motto and it comes from the mouth of Jesus. We are not simply waiting for a warm, safe commemoration of his birth, though warmth and safety would be welcome this year, but we are preparing for when He comes for us in death. Over to the clear-sighted Sister Johanna.

You may be quite sure of this, that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house.

Matthew 24:43

I have never been happy with the notion of heaven as sleep nor taken much comfort in the prayer, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.” Paradise as a place of eternal rest makes me think irreverently of mattress advertisements. I sometimes wonder why the idea of rest has settled so firmly into the collection of metaphors we use to refer to eternal life.

These are thoughts I’ve been revisiting as I meditated recently on the text of Matthew quoted at the beginning of this post. When we think of death – if we think of death (mostly we try to avoid doing so) – it is hard to view it with anything other than dread: that moment when we are wrenched out of this painful, but familiar, existence where we are at home, and bundled into the next life – a life of which we have no first-hand knowledge. In this parable, the Lord himself brings up that subject we would rather avoid and refers to himself as the “burglar.” He can only be doing this to try to help us to view our death in another light. What is he trying to tell us?

If we are frequent readers of the gospels, this burglar image may have lost some of its freshness and originality for us. But think about it. That the eternally sinless Son of God should use the metaphor of a thief to describe himself is, along with being slightly humorous, also very unconventional. But, if we decide to take his word for it and think of him for a moment as the thief, then what – or who – is the loot? Well, us. We are what he wants to ‘steal’. And his desire for us is so intense that he likens himself to the lawless burglar, who just wants what he wants what he wants, and whose method is therefore to snatch and run with the goods.

But, if we had been awake, the parable implies, we might have prevented this ‘theft.’ I think the Lord may be employing the literary device of irony here. We cannot, in this life, be ‘awake’ enough to prevent this robbery. He will come. We will die. That is a certainty. But, in light of this parable, in no way is death to be seen as a descent into ‘sleep’. On the contrary, the parable makes me think of my death in terms of a diamond heist, with the Lord as its great mastermind, and maybe ending with a thrilling chase scene, in which he gets away with me, his diamond. One can hardly sleep through that.

The Lord’s words about staying awake, then, encourage us to think about what ‘being awake’ actually means. It strikes me that being awake, as we experience it in this life, has degrees. Awake as the mere opposite of being asleep is perhaps the lowest degree. A bit higher is the idea of conscience: keeping our conscience always ‘awake’ so that we never depart from the way of virtue. Better. But not the best. How about this as the highest level: the experience of love? Don’t we feel most deeply ‘awake’ when we love deeply? This deep love awakens parts of our being that had previously been ‘asleep’ and that we didn’t even realise we had. This must be the key to understanding heaven’s type of awake-ness. So, for me, the Lord’s words about being awake are inseparable from the experience of love. Love will ‘open us up’ as it wakes us up in heaven when God surrounds us and we are filled with his loving life, when we see with his eyes and love with our hearts perfectly attuned to his own heart. We do not know the hour when the ‘burglar’ will break in, snatch us, and wake us up to eternal love. Indeed, we cannot know when. But we can know something about what, about heaven’s fulfilment. We can know something – not everything, but something. We know it, even now, when we are awake in love.

Thank you Sister Johanna, I do agree that ‘resting in peace’ does not reconcile me to Eternity and even playing frisbee with golden crowns would pall after a couple of centuries. Let’s wait in hope and see! Will.

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16 December: Generous II

From Saiint Davids Cathedral

Part II of Sister Johanna’s reflection on our generous creator and father in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Thank you once again, Sister!

Yesterday we were looking at the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Mt.20:1-16), and we meditated on how God the Father, represented by the vineyard owner, searches for us ceaselessly. Today I would like to look at what happens when the time comes for the workers to be paid. .

Looking at this parable of Jesus strictly from the point of view of how to run a business, it is not a very cogent treatment of the subject, as yesterday’s post pointed out. Economics do not figure, for Jesus. Or rather, Jesus seems to be making the point that the ‘economics’ of the Kingdom are completely different from all others. Likewise, the justice of the Kingdom is emphatically not what we would expect. It was this latter point that always tripped me up when I was younger. The older I get, the less this trips me up, but let’s explore it anyway.

It used to be that when I read this parable, I would feel sorry for the workers hired in the morning, who worked hard all day long (as they are at pains to point out) ‘in all the heat’. Bad luck for them, I’d think, when the late-comers slouch in to receive their salary, and it comes out that the late ones are being paid as much as those hired early in the day. Because if the early group had known that this would happen, they could have slept late, and then strolled out to the marketplace for a few beers, and then pulled a pathetic face when the vineyard owner walked by, begged for a job, worked an hour and made a small bundle.

But I don’t think like that any longer. Age, life-experience, and self-knowledge have changed my perspective. My first thought now on reading the vineyard owner’s question, ‘Why are you envious because I am generous?’ is “Lord, I am not envious because you are generous. Relief is all I feel.” Many kinds of relief. Let’s start with the question of “when.” I learn here that the Lord ‘hires’ into the life of grace according to a timing that is entirely his own affair. This consoles me when I pray for people who do not seem to be in the Lord’s employ. I sometimes ponder the mystery of why some souls do not seem to know the Lord, or even want to know him, cannot seem to see that those who work in his vineyard are blessed beyond telling – the whole thing seems alien to them, even empty, delusional, ridiculous. But, in this parable I find that the question of when is simply not my problem, with regard to other souls. It is entirely the Lord’s prerogative to hire according to timing that only he understands, but is unquestionably right for those whom he hires. The thing to remember, the thing that gives me comfort here, is that he goes out and looks for us, as we saw in yesterday’s post. Repeatedly. Until the eleventh hour.

Then there is the matter of what this vineyard really stands for in the parable*. I like to think of the vineyard as heaven. In this interpretation, our Lord wants us to know that heaven is not a place where its inmates sit around and spend all their time singing alleluias: they work. St Therese used to say, ‘I’ll spend my heaven doing good on earth’. I think she would support this view of the vineyard. So, how wonderful that those who are ‘hired’ late in life, who late in life find the Lord and, late, learn to love him, may hope to be admitted as workers in the heavenly vineyard, along with those who received their working papers as young children. What a relief! I cannot be envious of the vineyard owner’s generosity here.

If the vineyard also stands for the life of grace on earth, which it probably does, well and good. To ‘work’ there is our joy, our greatest joy on earth. This is what makes the complaints of the workers in this parable so wrong-headed. For them, life in the vineyard is one big grind, evidently, its work something they want to do as little of as possible so that they can spend the rest of their time… doing what, exactly? Loafing about? (How boring). Living an exciting life of sin? (How addictive and miserable). Making money, becoming famous, and playing power games with people in order to get ahead? (Ditto). Doing what they want when they want? (Ok for a short time, but ultimately, no). What they don’t seem to get is that the life of grace is itself the ‘payment’. One of our deepest human and spiritual needs, after the need for love, is the need for meaning. A life in the Lord’s vineyard fulfils both needs, gives us both love and meaning. This is our payment – and this is why everyone who works for this vineyard owner receives the same payment.

Finally, there is a third reason why this parable no longer bothers me anymore. You might say that I am in the category of those who were hired early in the day. But how many of us from that category can claim, by the time we reach, let’s call it, a “mature” age, to have been faithful at every moment? Have we all worked straight through the day in all the heat? Really? Or did we occasionally lapse, flake out, slack off, waste time at the water cooler? Perhaps we are still there, in flake-out mode. Are we afraid to return to the vineyard, afraid of what the owner will say to us? This parable allows us to hope that the Lord may be generous with his mercy to us, also.

SJC.

Note:

*Scholarly treatments of this parable usually say that the vineyard stands for the covenant; those first called stand for the Jewish people, privileged since Abraham’s time. The Lord opens up the membership, invites the world in, offers them everything. The first called have no right to be jealous of this.

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