Epiphany: Life Changing Moments

Pieter Bruegel’s Adoration of the Magi

Psalm 72 (1-9) 10-15
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

O God, we give you thanks because,
in the carnation of the Word,
a new light has dawned upon the world,
that all the nations and peoples may be brought out of darkness
to see the radiance of your glory. Amen.

We are shortly coming to the end of the Christmas season as we come to enter the season of Epiphany. Even though our Gospel reading this morning makes it still feel as though we are in the Christmas Season – at least in the church. I have heard rumours that Cadbury’s Easter Creme Egg displays are popping up in the shops already!

However, a new season begins with the arrival of the Wise Men. Over the next couple of weeks, if you pay attention to the Bible readings, we will see epiphany stories in the lives of Eli and Samuel and at the wedding in Cana.

For today, I thought it was fitting to go through a slow-read through the Epiphany story. It is only Matthew who includes the story of the Wise Men or Magi from the East in the Christmas story. Their epiphany was the sudden and great revelation of Jesus and their response is the story being told here.

What does Epiphany mean? In the everyday it means to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realisation.’ I am not sure if you have had an epiphany moment but they are quite extraordinary! Those moments when some new idea, knowledge or thought blows through your mind and you suddenly and sometimes drastically see the world, people, and a situation in a totally new way. Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life.

Epiphany moments aren’t always dramatic affairs. They can happen in a quiet moment when you know that something has changed in your mind or in your heart.

I grew up in the church: Sunday School every week, my parents were very involved in the church, I sang (badly) in the choir, and was in various youth groups. I knew about Jesus but I don’t think I knew Jesus.

My first epiphany moment came while I was eating lunch in a dry field on a very hot July day at Ephesus, in Turkey. A few hours before this I was struck by the understanding that St Paul had been at Ephesus – not just the Greeks and the Romans – and had written the letter to the Ephesians.

I was where the Bible was. I had always seen it as a book, a story; but to be where the Bible took place – blew me away! I began to think that if the Bible happened in a real place – then maybe God and Jesus were more real than I thought they were.

By lunchtime, with all these thoughts rolling around my head, I had this sudden wave of peace and a sense of relief from all the grief and anger that I had been carrying around from the previous year and a half. I walked out of Ephesus that day totally different from how I walked in. I have never been the same since.
Matthew begins the Epiphany story ‘in the time of King Herod.’ If you are a fan of the soaps like Corrie or East Enders – then you will love The Herod’s. This family played an important part in the political setting of Jesus’ ministry. Several of them are mentioned in the Gospels along with a group known as the Herodians.

The Herodians were from a region that was forcibly converted to Judaism about 127 BCE. The male Herod’s were a talented bunch; they were political power-players who won favour with the Romans. They were also gifted at military strategy; Herod’s father held the post equivalent to Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This Herod became the military governor of Galilee when he was 25, his skills and talents made him friends with the likes of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra and Caesar Augustus.

These relationships brought him more land and his kingdom grew. Herod’s reign (for part of it) was a time of stability, prosperity and splendour – he founded cities, buildings and most notably rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem.

When we meet Herod in Matthew chapter two, he is about 70 years old and roughly two years away from his death. Herod is in a state of emotional and psychological deterioration as he became increasingly paranoid and mistrusting; so much so that he had 3 of his 15 children executed.
These 15 children came from the 10 wives he had! Herod is said to have died a painful death from kidney disease and gangrene.

This is the Herod that the wise men from the East met when they arrived in Jerusalem. Where did they come from? Persia, Babylon or maybe Arabia. Not sure. They are presumed to be Gentiles (so not Jewish) and come to represent the best wisdom of the Gentile world – they are the spiritual elites.

Why is this important? Tom Wright explains ‘Matthew wants us to be clear about something from the start. If Jesus is in some sense king of the Jews, that doesn’t mean that his rule is limited to the Jewish people. At the heart of many prophecies about the coming king, the Messiah, there were predictions that his rule would bring God’s justice and peace to the whole world.’

Right from his birth, Jesus is meant to rule the world. All people. Every nation. Matthew wants us to know this. It makes sense then that people outside of the Jewish faith see and experience who he is too.

Herod is frightened by the arrival of the Wise Men. The news of a new ‘King of the Jews’ has rocked his world. Herod had had this inscribed on his coins and to claim this title was treason. The title ‘King of the Jews’ was also on the cross of Jesus at the crucifixion. Herod had the title on his money; Jesus on the cross.

Who do you think the real king is here? This is Herod’s epiphany moment – he is not the real King of the Jews! Herod sends the Wise Men to Bethlehem with his made-up story he wants to pay homage as well. Herod is making an attempt to destroy Israel’s true king by employing foreign magi (oh foreign workers forever causing problems!) – but they only bring honour to the king’s rival – Jesus.

The Wise Men were obedient – this was a new thought to me. They followed the star even though they didn’t know where it would take them or what it meant but they followed it anyway. It made me think about what and who I follow.

Am I fully obedient to what God is calling me to do – even if I am not sure where it will lead? How far out of my way do I go to meet Jesus? Would I follow a star?

We know that the star that went before the Wise Men and came to rest over the place where Jesus was born was not an ordinary star. Sometimes you need some imagination to help picture these things. This star does not stay still – but moves as a guide.

Finally, the epiphany moment comes, notice it starts to happen before they even lay eyes on Jesus – simply the promise of him seems to be enough. It is when the star stops moving, Matthew tells us the Wise Men ‘were overwhelmed with joy.’ When was the last time you were overwhelmed with joy?

Does the thought of Jesus bring you joy? If not – then why not? What is missing? Maybe at the start of this new year it is time to ask for your own epiphany?

The Wise Men entered the house, overwhelmed by joy and knelt down before Jesus. They opened their treasure-chests and offered him gifts.

Gold – to show He was a king.
Frankincense – to show He deserved to be worshipped.
Myrrh – this is a strange gift to give a baby. Myrrh was used at the time when someone died. Jesus was the baby who would grow up and rescue us by dying in our place.

These were gifts of substantial financial value and the Wise Men expected to find what they were looking for at a royal court, and perhaps win favour there, but they were not disappointed with what they received.

What do we bring to God this morning? The Wise Men brought the best of what they had. Do we present our best? The best of our time, the first of our money, the greatest of our love, the first of our thanks? This is not to point out any deficiencies – I often get the order wrong myself.

The whole of the Christmas story from Mary & Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the message of the angels to the shepherds and their arrival at the stable to King Herod and the Wise Men – is a story of Epiphany. Great moments of realisation that do not leave us the same.

When we present ourselves to God – this is the most valuable thing we have – this is the only thing that He wants. You are more precious to Him to gold, frankincense and myrrh. When we encounter God we are never the same again. Thank God for that!

Knowing Me, Knowing You

2nd Sunday before Advent
November 15th, 2020
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 & Matthew 25:14-30

‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ is (I think) an appropriate title for this week’s sermon as it reflects one of the threads in Jesus’ parable about the kingdom of heaven. It is also, incidentally, a title of one of Abba’s greatest hits. The song is about a couple facing divorce and accepting the inevitability of their break-up. ‘We just have to face it, this time we’re through, breaking up is never easy.’ This is not an easy parable nor is it made any more comforting by the times we find ourselves living in, but I am going to try!

As I was preparing for this week, I saw more cries for help than usual from clergy on various social media platforms who are also preaching on Matthew 25 today. Like many of Jesus’ parables, it can be read on several different levels and it needs careful attention. We are becoming much more aware of the disparity between people, rich and poor, north and south, east and west, educated and less educated in our own country and around the world. Some could read this parable as the kingdom of God being unfair. It is a kingdom that gives more to those who already have more, less to those who are already disadvantaged. God is likened to the rich man who rewards his slaves based on performance, rewarding only those who make him richer and punishes those who don’t. In the light of Black Lives Matter, it is particularly problematic to view God as a slave owner. However, God does not work like that, he is a loving Father, he is not mean, and he is certainly not unfair.

We could also read this parable as a call to do more with what God has given us. It doesn’t matter how much we have been given, just do more with it and be smart about it. Again, if we don’t use it, we will be punished. The tension here is that, given the current situation with Covid, many people cannot volunteer or contribute their gifts for the service of others as they would in more normal times. Should they be made to feel guilty? Punished for what is beyond their control? These questions can lead to feelings of anxiety, despondency, sadness and depression.

It is important to set the wider context before we go any further. Both Paul writing to the Thessalonians and Matthew speak to the return of the Lord. God is coming back some day. The gospel writers, Paul and the disciples thought Jesus was coming back soon, at any moment. Yet here we are two thousand years later, still watching and waiting. Like the Thessalonians, we do not know the day or the time. Paul and Matthew are concerned with what people do in the meantime. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to put on the breastplate of faith and love, a helmet for the hope of salvation. Paul wants them to encourage and build each other up. Jesus is coming back, and it matters what was done in his absence. This is true for us to, how are we doing in the meantime? Are we being foolish or wise, investing, hiding or squandering?

In Jesus’ parable, the man (master) is going away for an undetermined amount of time. He calls his servants and gives them each a talent of silver, ‘to each according to this ability‘. Notice though that he does not give them any instructions about what to do with the talents. This is where knowing me, knowing you comes in. The man knew his servants, he had worked out what each would do with the talents given.

Through the actions of the first two servants, those who invested the talents, we can see that they knew their master. Even without explicit instructions, they knew what was expected of them, what would please their master. It is doubtful that these two slaves understood the motivation of their master but possibly suspected that this was some kind of test. The third slave knows his master too, he doesn’t like him, fears him and assumes that the master doesn’t think much of him either. The master does not seem to trust this slave as much as the others.

We don’t know why; Jesus does not provide an explanation of their relationship. Instead of trying to please or get to know his master, the slave gives up and buries the talent. When the master returns to his home, the third slave knows that trouble is coming so tells his master what he thinks of him. This slave had decided a long time ago that nothing would please his master so gave up trying. The slave focused on the negative and let fear take over. Many people can relate to the third slave, that nothing they do is ever good enough, so why try? This is applied to God too. I’ve heard things like, ‘God has never bothered with me, so why should I bother him?’ or ‘if God is so good, then why did x, y, or z happen?’ These questions often come from a place of deep hurt and carry some honesty, but they also indicate a lack of knowledge of God.

When it comes to talents, by this I mean our gifts and skills; they have come from God. They are given to be used, we are stewards of them, not the owners. The owner is God, and he expects us to use his gifts wisely. Gifts, like the silver talents of the slaves, increase with use. To use them wisely and to the glory of God, we need to know the giver, the true owner of these gifts. God has a genuine and vested interest is what we do in his name.

If we seek to know God and his will for our lives, we do not need to worry about the outer darkness. We are all going to have to account for what we have done with what has been given to us. It does not matter how much; this is not a competition. If you feel that God was stingy or somehow passed you by when handing out your gifts, seek him, ask him! God know you, knows your capacity, He also loves and understands you. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to: ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’

The third slave focused on the negative, what he did not have, did not get and blames the master for that. The master replies by pointing out that the slave did not try, did not seek out what he (the master) wanted. Many people who tend to blame God for their misfortunes, do not seek after him in the first place. Assumptions about who God is and what He is like are often wrong and based on circumstance and feelings rather than knowledge and relationship.

For Abba, Knowing Me, Knowing You was a serious song about the breakdown of relationship left to human devices and frailties. For the third slave, this could be his song, the breaking up is never easy and he had to go. For the other slaves and for us, who know Jesus, Knowing Me, Knowing You is a positive experience, it is an ongoing and ultimately loving relationship with the Father who loves us more than we can ask or imagine, who gives good gifts for the benefit of all. Don’t waste what God has given you, seek the Lord while he may be found, we need to build each other up for the day of the Lord in coming.

Remembrance Sunday 2020: Lest We Forget

Remembrance Sunday
Remembrance Sunday tableau at St Thomas, Colnbrook

I should have been leading the Eucharist at Burnham Abbey this morning. Sadly I was unable to with the new lockdown. Thanks to Bill Birmingham, LLM in Langley for his wonderful sermon from which I have borrowed.

Burnham Abbey – Remembrance Sunday

November 8th, 2020

Wisdom 6:12-16
1 Thessalonians 4:13-end
Matthew 25:1-13

Once again, we come together on this Remembrance Sunday to rightly remember those who gave their lives for this nation over the last 100 hundred years. It is now 75 years since the end of the 2nd World War. To have fought in it, someone must be at least in their late 90s and in a couple of years or so there will be no-one left who was a combatant in that war. Due to Covid, our lives and our economy are probably the worst since the end of the 2nd World War. The Coronavirus is the worst since the Spanish flu virus which in 1918-1919 killed more than died in the trenches.

This year our commemoration of both wars has inevitably been curtailed. Although the ceremony at the Cenotaph takes place, the march past of veterans and their families has had to be cancelled. Services and ceremonies at War Memorials up and down the country have had to be reduced in scope and moved online.

As part of what you might call ‘historical research’ for today, I watched the film ‘1917’. The premise of the film is the harrowing tale of two young soldiers sent to the front-line with a message to stop an impending British advance that would have resulted in disaster. The film shows their journey through the trenches, no-man’s land and many other horrors – you will have to watch for yourselves! The reason they are sent on this perilous journey is because the retreating Germans had cut the phone line and there was no other way to relay the message to the front.

I did have to stop and contemplate this! There was only one way to get the message delivered. Life and limb were risked getting it there. I am glad to live in a world where there is more than one way to get a message across. Some might argue there are now too many ways to communicate and we are not any better for it. I know that having moved everything online isn’t ideal. Some people will not be able to participate and it isn’t as good as meeting face to face. However, we need to hold the tension that we are doing the best we can, given the circumstances.

Just as men and women gave their lives during the wars and conflicts of the last century, or, if they survived, had been prepared to, so this year we have seen men and women in the NHS, care homes and other key jobs prepared to put their lives in jeopardy to protect others from the virus. The world war spirit was partly illustrated by the 100-year-old Captain Sir Tom Moore who, having fought with his comrades in Burma – and who survived, even though many of his comrades did not – was ready to walk a marathon in his back garden to show support for those in the NHS engaged in today’s battle against enemy.

It may seem that wisdom is illusive at this time, circumstances and situations force things to change very quickly and there doesn’t seem to be much room for the accumulation of wisdom. I think that part of the mass appeal of Sir Tom is his wisdom that he is readily sharing with the nation. His wisdom has been accumulated over many decades, even a century! According to Solomon, ‘wisdom is radiant and unfading and is found by those who seek her.’ May we be people who seek wisdom in our times of challenge and confusion.

One of the wisest things we can do is pray. In the middle of the 2nd World War and then on D-Day, King George VI called on the nation to pray. He said, “Four years ago, our Nation and Empire stood alone against an overwhelming enemy, with our backs to the wall. Tested as never before in our history, in God’s providence we survived that test; the spirit of the people, resolute, dedicated, burned like a bright flame, lit surely from those unseen fires which nothing can quench. Now once more a supreme test has to be faced. This time the challenge is not to fight to survive but to fight to win the final victory for the good cause. Once again what is demanded from us all is something more than courage and endurance; we need a revival of spirit, a new unconquerable resolve.”

At the start of another lock down caused by the Coronavirus, we too should follow the King’s call in his day and pray in our day. We should remember to pray for those suffering or bereaved as a result of the virus and those in laboratories working to attack and overcome our current foe. Alongside our prayers for those who have lost their lives or been injured in the wars of the past and present.

We need to learn from our history, and therefore it is important for Remembrance Sunday to be maintained and the stories told to future generations. Soon all we will have is books and recordings and movies like ‘1917’ to tell the stories.

In the second reading from 1 Thessalonians, St Paul is addressing the concerns raised about what happens when people die. The people of Thessalonica were confused about what would happen, as I believe, many people are confused today. I hope that it is reassuring to know that no one is beyond the reach of God – living or dead. We will meet and be caught up in the clouds.

St Paul makes plain that God’s people will rise to be with Jesus whether they have died or are still alive at Jesus’ return. They will both be with the Lord for ever. St Paul is therefore able to urge the Thessalonian church members to encourage one another with his words. And so, in the same way, may we as members of God’s people here in Burnham encourage one another as we pass through the darkness of the pandemic.

Finally, our Gospel reading urges to be ready for Jesus’ return. The allied forces had to be ready for D-Day, when the King made his call to prayer, and the battles that followed. Jesus tells the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. The wise had brought oil for their lamps; the foolish hadn’t. When the bridegroom arrived, the wise could light their lamps and come into the wedding feast; the foolish who had had to go and buy more oil were still queuing at the check-out and their opportunity was lost.

How many of us will find ourselves still at the checkout when Jesus, the Church’s bridegroom, comes? And what, if any, action are we taking now, or do we need to take, to be ready then? Or will we, like the foolish bridesmaids, miss out?

On this Remembrance Sunday, different from many others, we must not forget the history gifted to us from previous generations, we must seek out and listen to the wisdom handed down to us and then pass it forward. As we live through an unprecedented (for us) time with another virus, social and economic crisis all around, threats of terrorism – may we remember that this time too will become history. One day. From the bible commentator Walter Brueggemann, ‘In the recital of memory, these is hope for the future.’

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Invitation: Unconditioned but not Unconditional

I had the great privilege this morning of giving the homily at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Langley. Fr Kevin has become a valued and great friend over my time here. It was an honour to join in their service today.

October 11th, 2020

Isaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

This is one of those parables of Jesus that isn’t easy to understand and certainly less easy to preach about! I said a few weeks ago that we are a season of teaching at the Jesus School and the lessons are getting more difficult. That doesn’t not mean that we can avoid or ignore the bits that we find difficult!

The parables of Jesus are meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – this certainly does that. They are also meant to show us who God is and who God isn’t. Many read this parable as God playing the role of the king, Jesus the king’s son whose wedding it is, the Jews are the guests that are invited but don’t show up and then get killed for it, and the rounded up, unwashed good and bad at the last moment are us Gentiles. This understanding, while neat and tidy, flattens this story and avoids looking at what it is really about.

The second problem with this flat reading is what does this say about God? Is he a tyrannical king who kicks out the guests who turn down his invitation to be killed in the streets while the city burns? I think not! If we believe that God is our loving Father who ultimately wants what is best for us – then the idea that He is like this king is incorrect.

Where does that leave us?

“The Wedding Feast” by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube

We can maybe relate to the kingdom of heaven being is compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for this son and the invited guests did not come. Maybe we have invited family or friends over for a meal or a party and they don’t turn up. Maybe they forgot, or there was a falling out or they got a better offer. Likewise, all people (all means all) are invited into the kingdom of heaven, God’s invitation knows no limit.

In both cases there are consequences. This is what we don’t like. I volunteer as the police chaplain for Thames Valley in Slough. It is a fascinating role! Ultimately the police are dealing with the fallout of the consequences of people’s actions, generally the wrong ones. People resist arrest, go out on the lam, do some crazy things to not get caught, all in a bid to avoid the consequences of their actions.

If you invite someone over and they don’t turn up – there are consequences. You have wasted your time cleaning and cooking; you have spent money on food and drink that might go to waste and likely your feelings will be hurt at the lack of consideration and respect shown. While annoying, these consequences are more inconsideration and lack of respect.

The refusal of the invitation into the kingdom of heaven has far more severe consequences. There is a sense of anger and urgency in Matthew’s story (maybe this is what makes this parable hard to understand). Part of the anger is generated at the beginning of the scene. The King is throwing a party for his Son, it will be glorious and spectacular, a big celebration, people would beg, borrow and steal to get an invitation. But these strange people do not seem to care. What should have been time for a party turns into a war zone. Clearly these people do not care about their future King. This rejection of him is both personal and corporate – they not only reject him but their share in the future nation he represents.

St Gregory the Great explains that in their frenzied pursuit of the is world’s goods, the first set of guests fail ‘to take notice of the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation.’ The murderous response to the king’s slaves shows the depth and nature of human hostility towards God.

The second point of anger comes out of the sense of urgency in that the banquet is ready to start, the food is on the table and the drinks are poured and it is all about to go to waste. The people will never again get invited to a royal wedding again. The invitation has been rejected.

The King then throw open the invitation to all, it is unconditioned, but it is not unconditional. There are consequences. Just as the wedding guests must dress in an appropriate way for the feast, so repentance and faith are needed to enter the kingdom of God. In telling this parable, Jesus is warning his disciples against a naïve underestimation of the power of sin. Some people will experience ‘the outer darkness’ for failing to accept the invitation. Throughout this series of parables in Matthew 21 & 22, Jesus wants his audience that they are in real danger of passing up their chance to share in the kingdom of God. Jesus and the kingdom of God go together and cannot be separated. If you reject the Son, you reject the King. Many of those listening to Jesus, like the invited guests, did not want to believe this.

The invitation to the feast has been a long time coming, in both Psalm 23 and Isaiah 25, a feast is being prepared. Isaiah has a rich feast, of well matured wines and rich food. The Lord will wipe away the tears from faces and take away the disgrace of his people. Is Psalm 23, the table is spread in the presence of mine enemies and the cup runneth over. The time is now, there is urgency in the message.

Will we accept it? Will we put on the right clothes and attend? St Augustine said, ‘the garment that is required is in the heart; not on the body.’ If we are not here to celebrate with the Son, then there is nothing for us. The warning is stark but also real. The truth of this parable, Tom Wright says, ‘God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which love and justice and truth and mercy and holiness reign unhindered. They are the clothes you need to wear for the wedding. And if you refuse to put them on, you are saying you don’t want to stay at the party. That is the reality. If we don’t have the courage to say do, we are deceiving ourselves, and everyone who listens to us.’

Let us not be deceived. The invitation is there, we are all on the guest list. We need to be dressed and ready. Ready to be changed into the people God made us to be, ready to celebrate and share in the Good News. The banquet is set and ready. Are we?

Cucumbers & Grapes: The Confusing Fairness of God

For the Sisters of Burnham Abbey

Sunday September 20th, 2020 – Trinity 15

Exodus 16:2-15, Philippians 1:21-end, Matthew 20:1-16

I want to start with this rather amusing story I found this week:

A few years ago, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, two zoologists at Emory University, decided to study the evolution of fairness. They wanted to explore where our distaste for unfairness comes from. Is it a cultural add-on, or is it hardwired?

To study this question, Brosnan and de Waal designed an experiment using capuchin monkeys. Pairs of monkeys were placed in adjacent cages where they could see each other and trained to take turns giving small granite rocks to their human handler. Each time a monkey relinquished a rock, she would receive a piece of cucumber as a reward.

Capuchins love cucumbers, so both monkeys found this arrangement satisfactory, and handed over their rocks with enthusiasm. But then, the handler changed things up. After a few fair and even exchanges, the handler rewarded the first monkey with a chunk of cucumber as usual but gave the second monkey a grape — the equivalent of fine wine or caviar in the monkey world.

Seeing that the game had changed for the better, the first monkey perked up, and very eagerly handed over another rock, expecting, of course, to receive a grape, too. But no — the handler gave her another piece of cucumber. To make things worse, the handler then gave the second monkey another grape for free!

The results — which you can look up on YouTube — were striking. The first monkey just about lost her mind. Not only did she refuse to eat the cucumber; she hurled it at the handler’s face. She then proceeded to bang against the bars of the cage, throw her remaining rocks in every direction, and make furious gestures at her grape-eating companion.

The experiment has since been repeated using other primates, and the results have been astonishingly similar. Scientists have also studied the development of fairness in human babies and found that infants as young as nine months old will react quite strongly and negatively to perceived unfairness. Clearly, as Brosnan and De Waal concluded after their experiment, fairness is a concept that is deeply rooted in the human psyche.

We have a couple of examples of how deeply rooted fairness is in the readings this morning.

The newly freed Israelites seem to have rather short memories as they rail against Moses, Aaron and God for the perceived unfairness of their new situation in the wilderness. According to them, God has led them into the wilderness to let them starve to death. Of course, he did! God, in his infinite mercy and goodness, feeds the Israelites consistently and daily, morning and night. He did this not only to meet their physical needs but also the need for them to know that he is the Lord their God.

We know that the world is an unfair place, people are treated unfairly at every turn and have been since the beginning. I also think that there are varying degrees of unfairness and we need to keep perspective on the truly unjust and unfair issues facing our world. It is not all cucumbers and grapes!

I also couldn’t help but wonder if St Matthew heard the parable of the landowner and hired labourers and what he made of it? He had been a Jewish tax collector! I suspect that Matthew, in his role as a tax collector, had a skewed view of fairness. His job would have been a good one, secure and well-paid; good for him. Yet his fellow Jews in Capernaum would have seen him as a collaborator with the Romans, in the category with prostitutes and other sinners. Matthew would have paid the heavy price of isolation from his fellow Jew – he was a traitor in their eyes. Yet Matthew had become a genuine follower of Jesus, a convinced Jewish Christian. He, like Peter, Andrew, James and John, did not hesitate to follow Jesus when called.

Jesus seems to be speaking to these disciples, warning them that fame and fortune were not going to be reward for following him. Being close to Jesus was not going to make them the favoured few for all time. Maybe Matthew and the others needed an attitude adjustment? Peter and the others could be the workers that were there at the start of the day, Matthew sometime later? Like the monkeys and us, their sense of fairness was based on being good and doing the right things with the expectation of reward. This is what Jesus is warning against.

Along with the warning, there is also a reminder of the grace and generosity of God. We cannot store these things up or bargain with them, like the monkeys with the rocks to exchange them for cucumbers when we think we need it.

Tom Wright: ‘The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for our effort, but doing what comes naturally to his overflowing generous nature.’

I know I need the reminder today of the covenant of God and that he will keep his promises. While the world isn’t as fair as it should be, and I am not always fair to others as I should be – God is infinitely fair even though we don’t understand how sometimes.

I need to renew the promise that St Paul admonishes us to do ‘live a life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.’ We can take inspiration from Matthew as he left his tax booth to follow and live the life worthy of the call.