The Quality of Mercy

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 16:2-15 OR Jonah 3:10-4:11
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

There are Sundays when it seems that God simply can’t catch a break. In one Old Testament reading, the people of God grumble and complain because they don’t have enough; they are worried about where their next meal will come from; they do not believe that Moses or God can provide; they are uncomfortable with having to rely on God.

Alternatively, if you opt for the reading from Jonah, God gets slammed by Jonah for being merciful to the Ninevites; for treating them better than they deserve; for being steadfast in love: Complaints for not providing enough, complaints for providing too much. Jonah is probably tied more directly to the gospel reading, but before that, we should talk about Paul.

From the depths of a Roman prison Paul writes to his friends in Philippi. His friends are under some pressure from hostile forces because of their faith in Christ. Later in the epistle he worries that this hostility may lead them to start grumbling against God and each other. He subtly notes that this is not the first time that that people of God had “grumbled,” and he urges them to avoid this (Phil 2:12-14).

Grumbling, however, is not Paul’s primary focus. The thing he is most concerned with, the thing is asks them to do first and foremost is this: “Order your life together in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Paul’s plea is not directed to individuals, but to a whole community. Ordering a community’s life together is, at its most basic level, the work of politics. The politics Paul urges on the Philippians is one that is worthy of the gospel of Christ.

There are several striking things about Paul’s plea. First, he does not tell them to adopt the politics of the gospel of Christ. Instead, their politics is to be worthy of the gospel of Christ. This suggests that there may be many ways to order a community’s life together that would be worthy of the gospel. Paul is in prison (probably in Rome). He cannot know all of the ins and outs of the context in Philippi.

Although he had founded the church, he would not know of all of the people currently in the community. As a result, he both gives them a challenging directive and allows them to exercise their corporate wisdom to discern how and in what manner to embody a common life worthy of the gospel of Christ.

This is in part due to his confidence in them. More importantly, however, Paul is convinced that the one who began a good work in the Philippians will bring that work to its proper end in Christ (Phil 1:6). Paul’s future and the Philippians’ are in God’s hands. Paul does not have to micromanage the common life of this community. He can trust that just as God has led and directed him in service to the gospel, God can lead the Philippians into a common life worthy of the gospel.

Whatever specific shape a politics worthy of the gospel would look like in Philippi or elsewhere, it cannot avoid embodying the story of Christ related in Phil. 2:6-11. In these verses Paul relates Christ’s disposition to empty himself for the benefit of others, refusing to exploit his divine status, taking on the role of a slave instead. He obediently lives out the mission God has given him and in doing so, offers his life back to God on the cross. God vindicates this obedient self-offering, exalting Christ, blessing him with “the name above all names.”

Further, any politics worthy of the gospel of Christ must seek to incorporate a vision of the reign of God (or in the words of Sunday’s gospel “the kingdom of Heaven”) as taught by Jesus. At the end of Matt 19, Jesus encounters a rich young ruler who is eager to find eternal life. When Jesus informs him that all he lacks is to sell all he has give it to the poor and become a follower, the ruler leaves frustrated. Jesus remarks that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Peter then reminds Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow him. Jesus reassures Peter by saying, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matt 19:29-30).

This seems meant to encourage Peter and the others that their longstanding devotion to Jesus will be recognized and rewarded. At the same time, it serves as an invitation to those whose devotion is not as longstanding, who have not yet given up everything, who are new to the community of followers. They, too, become “first,” receiving the same excessive generosity from Jesus.

Our gospel reading, which comprises the beginning verses of Matthew 20, uses a parable to explicate further this phrase “the first will be last and the last will be first” from the perspective of the kingdom of heaven. In the parable those who have invested the most in the day’s work in terms of time, sweat, and effort and those who have invested the least receive the same wage. Despite their initial grumblings those who have invested the most, worked the longest, have received a just wage. It is those who have invested the least that shockingly receive that same wage.

By the calculus that proportions reward in relation to investment this is not just or fair. Rather, it is bountiful, extravagant and excessive. Moreover, this is all achieved without short changing anyone. The last do not become first at the expense of those who are first. Those who are first are not brought into conformity with the last by having to give up anything. If it is a leveling process, it is only to the extent that everyone is brought up to the same level; no one is diminished or brought low.

Can a politics worthy of the gospel of Christ embody this extravagant, excessive generosity in its day-to-day life? More importantly, can it do so with rejoicing? Or will we, like Jonah, be upset by a God whose nature is always to have mercy?

One Response to “The Quality of Mercy”

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  1. Nice tie in between the politics worthy of the gospel and the Jonah and Matthew lessons. When that politics is embodied in communities of faith, it is an “omen” to the empire leading to suffering in the “conflict” in which Paul is engaged. Philippians 1:28-30. Perhaps that would work as an ecclesiastical reflection: “Church as Omen.” Thanks!

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