Any talk of tax and taxation can very easily set up a polarity. Attitudes differ within our own political parties in the UK and across the world. As I walk into this scene in the Gospels I find myself trying to imagine what it would be like to live under an occupying power. Whatever I might think about taxation and the common good in regular circumstances might be different if that tax is paid to an occupying power.
We are so familiar with this Gospel scene of Jesus being confronted by the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. Their opening words of flattery only heighten the charge of the scene: ‘Master we know that you are an honest man and teach the word of God in an honest way…’ What is at issue here is the paying of the census tax, a tax paid directly to the Emperor. This required a special coin bearing the head of the Emperor.
In both his words and his actions Jesus takes charge of the scene. By asking them to show him a coin they reveal that they are carrying the coin themselves. He then turns their question back on them. These are both masterful moves. Some commentators will see in this scene the justification for the separation of Church and state. I don’t see it like this. I see rather that Jesus is showing that it is God’s power that reigns supreme and not the Emperor’s. The silver denarius might bear the Emperor’s image, but we are made in God’s own image. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God and our currency is love.
When I sat down to read today’s Gospel I had a few ideas about how I understood the passage and I turned to my usual commentaries. No pennies dropped and I was getting close to giving up and writing something on the First Reading from Isaiah 25 instead. Something made me persevere and I looked up a lectionary website which uses the work of Rene Girard as an interpretative key.
For what follows I am indebted to the insights of James Alison. Last week I offered the idea of finding an interpretative key to help us unlock the Gospel. This week its as if we have found a key but the parable is one of those tricky locks where you have to persevere if you want to open the door. You might not do it on your first attempt.
As we open the door of Isaiah 25 we are invited to a huge banquet. The imagery paints a beautiful scene of bounty and inclusion. God has saved his people and this lavish banquet puts the seal on the whole history of God’s promises:
On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines, of food rich and juicy, of fine strained wines.
At this banquet it’s not just our hunger that will be satisfied but there is a promise of God wiping tears from our eyes too. It’s a holistic vision.
As we move to the Gospel scene we might picture the preparations for the wedding banquet. These preparations are lengthy and involve sending out a first invite, seeing who responds, estimating the food needed and then sending a second invite. Commentators suggest that it is at this second stage that the rather puzzling responses are made: ‘one went off to his farm, another to his business’
I have always been left wondering why anyone would turn down an invite to a party given by a king. This is where the work of James Alison provided an insight. He comments that in Hebrew a summons to war and a summons to a feast (to share bread) are very similar linguistically. The Hebrew word for ‘bread’ (lechem), shares a root with the words for ‘fight’ (lehilachem) and ‘war’ (milchama).
The reasons for the guests declining the invite are more fitting to a summons to war than a feast. Deuteronomy 20 gives several legitimate reasons for declining a summons to war:
‘Is there any man here who has built a new house and not yet dedicated it? Let him go home lest he die in battle and another perform the dedication. Is there any man here who has planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed its fruit? Let him go home lest he die in battle and another enjoy its fruit. Is there any man here who has betrothed a wife and not yet taken her? Let him go home lest he die in battle and another take her.‘
James Alison suggests that one of the things that is at issue in this parable is the mishearing or misunderstanding of the invite. Responding to a summons to war is a choice to remain in the world of vengeance, whereas accepting an invitation to a feast opens up a world of grace.
I am left thinking about the many invitations in my own life. Am I seeing them as a summons to war or an invitation to a feast? Am I bracing myself for a battle or anticipating a rich feast. Likewise too in our global church as we journey together in the synodal process, there will be those who see it as a battleground and those who see it as a feast.
What are the invitations in your own life? How do you respond?
When we open the Scriptures, we open a world of story, poetry and metaphor. Origen, a Third Century theologian, likens the Bible to a mansion. The various books of the Bible are doors which we need to unlock. Outside each door is a key which will unlock one door. Our task is to match each key to a door. This can be the work of a life time. In public liturgy the Church will help us to open a door by laying Bible passages side by side. We can see this very clearly in today’s Liturgy of the Word.
We begin with a passage from the First Book of Isaiah. The first thing to note is that this is a song, a love song for God’s vineyard. It tells the story of God’s relationship with Israel. Every care has been lavished on Israel. The vineyard is God’s pride and joy:
He dug the soil, cleared it of stones and planted choice vines in it.
The love song changes to a lament as things haven’t gone according to plan. God expects a fruitful harvest and instead finds only ‘sour grapes’. God threatens to destroy the vineyard.
When we come to read the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard Isaiah’s imagery gives us one interpretative key. It isn’t a perfect fit. Unlike in Isaiah’s song, destruction of the vineyard itself is not part of the parable, but instead judgement at the way in which the tenants have managed it is. This doesn’t make for very comfortable reading at all. What message can we take from this? Most commentaries will suggest that Jesus is speaking principally to the faith leaders. If we take this at face value, then this lets us nicely off the hook. Very few of us are faith leaders. We have to mine a bit deeper. The texts from Isaiah and Matthew share a background in covenantal theology. God’s self gift in the Torah and the Incarnation bind us in relationship. God has taken the initiative and awaits our response. God has entrusted us with the ‘vineyard’ of baptism, family, community, personal vocation and many more things. Each gift has built into it the dynamic of call and response.
St Benedict expected unhesitating obedience from his monks:
‘The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all.’ (Rule of St Benedict, Ch 5, On Obedience)
For St Benedict cherishing Christ is key to everything that happens in the monastery. Reading this challenging line from the Rule, you might imagine blind obedience and a community of monks who silently follow orders. This is anything but the case in ordinary monastic living. Obedience is a process which unfolds the longer you live the life. In formation your training begins on the simplest of levels. You are given a timetable which is unlikely to be the same as any of your fellow novices. The first learning is, as my novice mistress said: ‘turning up in the right place, at the right time, with the appropriate expression on your face.’ There is something about the routine of following a timetable that begins to carve out in your heart a space for unhesitating obedience. Of course there will be things that you really don’t want to do. The monastic way is to turn up and do them anyway.
It’s easy to identify with both sons in this parable. I don’t have to look far for things I said I would do and then found a reason not to. Likewise there are many times when I grumpily built a case for not doing something and then relented. Each son has something to teach me. From time to time I can notice a shift in myself when something challenging is asked of me. Just occasionally grace floods in and I don’t even start the inner dialogue of whether I want to do it or not. This grace is due in no small part to the example of my sisters in community who day in and day out choose to do ‘the next right thing’.
Knowing and following God’s will can be made easier when we consciously look to others for example. We make our way together into the Kingdom of God.
When I was in the third form in secondary school, we had an innovative head of year. She was a very zany dresser, combining full length fake mink coats with yellow wellies. Just seeing her outfits always gave me a lift. Her assemblies were memorable too. She used to play music as 180 girls filed in and took their places.
My favourite track was Abba, I believe in Angels.
I have a dream, a song to sing To help me cope with anything If you see the wonder of a fairy tale You can take the future, even if you fail.
I believe in angels, Something good in everything I see. I believe in angels. When I know the time is right for me, I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream.
Today’s feast invites us ‘ to see the wonder’ of God’s power in our lives and to have hearts open to ‘something good in everything we see’. Listening to the Scriptures will help us to do this. In the first reading from the Book of Daniel we might imagine ourselves as part of the heavenly court. We might be filled with awe as we take our place with the ‘ten thousand times ten thousand’. Or we might sit with Nathaniel and hear the promise that we will see ‘heaven laid open and, above the Son of Man, the angels of God ascending and descending.’
These images come from realms that aren’t always easy for our imaginations to access. But what we can access are the many ways in which God can come to us in the ordinary stuff of our lives.
How can you be open to something good in everything you see today?
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard.
Writing in 1954, biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias, calls this text The Parable of the Good Employer. He sees the parable as being about salvation: the Jewish people are hired in the morning and the Gentiles at the eleventh hour. It’s a parable of warning and reckoning. Forty years ago when I first read this explanation I would have seen no problem with it, likewise the stereotyping found in his analysis of those hired last: ‘No oriental will stand for hours in the marketplace. Hence they sit down gossiping idly in the marketplace.’
Thinking has moved in biblical studies and I am most influenced by the work of Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy J Levine. Her thinking is that if you have to make Judaism look bad in order to make Christianity look good, then you have a problem. She sees this parable as enshrining a basic truth of Judaism: everyone is created in the image and likeness of God. God is generous by nature. God’s generosity cannot be limited by our own value system. We are back to the idea from the Gospel last week of the parables as an invitation to step into the world of grace. Placing ourselves firmly in the world of calculating and measuring risks missing an opportunity for grace. The call is to be generous.
This isn’t as straight forward as it may sound. In monastery living the ideal would be that each receives according to need. There is an understanding that one size doesn’t fit all and part of personal growth is trusting the process. Of course, in some circumstances, equal shares are expected. I remember my Novice Mistress commenting that with the best will in the world its hard not to scan and spot ‘injustice’. If a gift of cherries has been shared out and your portion has been put at your refectory place, you will instinctively know if your neighbour got ten and you got nine! The monastic way is to try to be at peace with that.
Where is God calling you to be generous this week?
The Nuns of Twitter have been sharing their experiences of their vocation journeys. While there are some differences between our experiences, we all share that mixture of courage, trepidation and love that was needed for us each to make that initial contact and then formally ask to enter a congregation or monastery.
‘As Jesus was walking on, he saw a man named Matthew sitting by the customs house, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.‘
Matthew’s call looks very straight forward by comparison! There’s no hint of agonising or wondering if he will be accepted, warts and all. Indeed, it’s Jesus who takes the initiative. Reading between the lines, as we so often have to with Gospel stories, we can perhaps imagine that Matthew has been searching for a long time. Perhaps his work life as a tax collector for the Romans uses a particular skill set and has given him an identity, albeit an identity which would make him excluded from some circles. I imagine an inner restlessness that he doesn’t necessarily share with anyone. On that day, on that seat by the customs house, at that time, something shifts. Matthew is drawn into the dynamic of discipleship. He will spend his whole life responding to Jesus’ initiative.
Perhaps you can pinpoint a moment your own life when you made a choice that shaped the course of your whole life? Often that initial ‘yes’ begins a process of consciously saying ‘yes’ many times over.
How is Christ calling you to follow him more closely during this week?
The figure of the servant who is forced to settle a debt and doesn’t have the means to do so unsettles me from the very beginning of this parable. His earnest pleas are heard and to my relief his huge debt is cancelled. It would be good if the parable stopped there.
The shaft of light created by the cancelling of the debt quickly disappears and now the scene is set in shadow. The servant hasn’t internalised the mercy that was shown him. He hasn’t internalised the words of the Psalmist: The Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy. The servant has chosen to stay firmly in the world of debt-keeping and vengeance. He has missed an opportunity for grace.
Matthew’s uncompromising parable addresses a community who were learning the cost of discipleship. That there were disagreements is a given. The parable form is designed to shock and jolt its hearers. Matthew is telling his audience that forgiveness is the key that will unlock the dynamics of the Kingdom. The parable is an invitation to step into the the world of grace.
How can you step into the grace of the Kingdom this week?
Today’s first reading from Numbers is the story of the people being bitten by snakes in the wilderness. Moses fashions a bronze serpent, holds it up and whoever looks upon it lives. Whatever we might think of the likelihood of this happening, the point the story is the power of God to heal and save.
‘No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven; and the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’
Moses’ holding up the serpent links directly with John’s important theological idea of Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. Jesus is presented as the one who brings healing through suffering and glory. When Jesus is lifted up people will see that his claims about his close relationship with his Father are true.
We don’t always connect suffering and glory in our own lives. But we do recognise the power of love to heal us. Christ’s self-emptying love is there in the everyday if we can take time to slow down and see it. There are moments when Christ is ‘lifted up’ in the small kindnesses and acts of self-giving love. The invitation today is to be open to those moments.
‘I tell you solemnly once again, if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.‘
This quotation is so familiar that over the years I have taken for granted what it means. That it teaches us something about prayer would be the most obvious interpretation. From a monastic perspective it’s the promise that Christ is there every time we gather that takes my attention. While the communal times of prayer are the principle way in which we gather as monastics, alongside this there several more forms of gathering. Christ is present in all of these.
We gather around the common table. Meals eaten in silence and in common are a place into which we can invite Christ. The monastic refectory shares many of the ceremonials of the chapel. We gather at recreation. We take time in the day to come together to listen to each other. We sometimes gather for a work project or a meeting. Ideally we consciously invite Christ to be present here too. We gather when someone goes on a significant journey. Here our prayers for safety and a fruitful trip are implicit. We gather at a deathbed. When I entered, depending on the circumstances and time of a sister’s death, a bell would summon us to a sister’s bedside. In all of these gatherings we hope to be aware that Christ is present.
Where will you gather this coming week? Where will Christ be with you?