Father Donald Senior, CP

Sept. 20: 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

An elusive God

Is 55:6-9; Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Phil 1:20-24, 27; Mt 20:1-16

In many ways, the Bible is soaked with consciousness of God. God who creates the universe. God who guides the patriarchs and matriarchs. God who leads Israel out of slavery in Egypt. God who makes a covenant with the people. God who gives them their land. God who grows impatient and angry with his “stiff-necked” people. God who brings them back from exile. And for us Christians, God who sends his only son to redeem and heal us. God whose love is tender and infinite and unconditional.

The list can go on. Along with strong consciousness of God’s presence in virtually every facet of the biblical peoples’ lives, there is also a nagging perplexity that is a sense that God is barely known and far different than anything or anyone we might imagine. The paradox of the God of the Scriptures is that he is both very near and very far.

That very conviction runs through our first reading from Isaiah. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near. Let the scoundrel forsake his ways and the wicked his thoughts; let him turn to the Lord for mercy, to our God, who is generous in forgiving.”

But with the same breath, the prophet utters God’s caution: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways about your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.’

The response Psalm 145 shares this same ambivalence of God both near and far. “The Lord is near to all who call upon him” but also, “Great is the Lord and highly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.”

In many ways, the Gospel selection of Jesus’ parable about the laborers in the vineyard has this same sense of paradox about the ways of God. The owner goes out and hires workers to tend the vineyard at different times during the day, starting at dawn with the first bunch and in the evening hiring some laborers barely an hour before the end of the workday. 

I think all of us are perplexed by the ending of this story. Those who worked all day long in the heat are paid the same as those who worked only an hour. Where is the justice in that? But the punch line Jesus gives reminds me of Isaiah’s warning: “God’s ways are not our ways.”

The owner of the vineyard responds to the workers who complain: “My friend, I am not cheating you. … Or are you envious because I am generous?” God’s generosity is not bound by our rules and God’s love is unconditional and often inexplicable. God embraces both the sinner and the saint.

The Scriptures respect the transcendent and mysterious character of God while, at the same time, exulting in God’s love and tenderness. That holds for Jesus, too, who is the human embodiment of the transcendent God.

No one has greater love than Jesus, who laid down his life for us. But, at the same time, the Gospels testify to the mystery of his presence: walking on the water; transfigured on the mountaintop; crying out in anguish at the moment of his death; appearing in unexpected moments to his disciples in the breaking of the bread.

This is the divine presence we are to seek all our lives. We hear the ardor of this kind of searching faith in today’s second reading, from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. 

The apostle is caught between his love of Christ and fidelity to his mission of preaching the Gospel. “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit,” he says.

Some modern forms of Christian piety strike me as too sentimental or too presumptuous in speaking of God and Christ. As if God was not a mystery at all, but like a big kind uncle, proximate and predictable. The Scriptures today remind us that the God we seek is both more intensely loving and mysteriously elusive than any reality we can know.



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