One of the many tragic consequences of this coronavirus pandemic is that so many people are losing their jobs and if still in work they are fearful they also may be made redundant. It’s a desperately worrying time for them and their families, and also for those who are struggling to keep their businesses going or have had to shut them down altogether.
It’s against this current background that we hear Jesus in the Gospel (Matthew 21:33-43) telling a story about unemployed people being offered a day’s work at various hours in a day. He tells it in response to those complaining about the company he was keeping, and how he was paying more attention to outcasts and public sinners than he was to the more upstanding members of the community.
At the end of the working day the employer generously gives a full day’s wages to everyone, even to those who worked for just a few hours. Naturally, this angers those who had worked the whole day – they feel that either they should have been paid more or the others paid less. The employer explains in reply that he is not being unjust to anybody – they’ve got their full day’s pay, after all – but that because he felt sorry for the latecomers he decided to give them the same pay. He’s being generous, not unjust.
Of course, this offends our natural sense of justice. To us there is something unfair about people being paid the same for a few hours work as those working a full day. We would feel angry if this was done to us.
However, this is Jesus’ way of explaining how God thinks differently from us, as described in the First Reading, referring to God: ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways’.
God, explains Jesus, is like this employer: he looks as mercifully on those who come late to his love – like the outcasts and public sinners he, Jesus, is befriending – as the employer in the story looked on the latecomers. This may appear unfair to to devout people who have been law abiding all their lives but God, Jesus teaches, is merciful by nature and it’s never too late to begin or renew your relationship with Him.
This is one of the major themes of Pope Francis’ ministry. He constantly reminds us that as God is merciful, so we in the Church must be too. Let the Church, he says, always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.
It’s worth noting that motto Pope Francis has chosen for his ministry consists of three Latin words taken from a sermon by our own 8th century St Bede of Jarrow about Christ calling the tax-collector Matthew to be an apostle. Matthew was an outcast and despised by fellow Jews for collecting taxes from them for the Romans. Bede wrote that when Jesus caught sight of Matthew for the first time, he saw him “through the eyes of mercy and chose him” – miserando atque eligando. It means Christ did not look on Matthew with a disapproving scowl, like everyone else did, but, as St Bede wrote, ‘though the eyes of mercy’.
Pope Francis says he chose this motto because he believes that Jesus looks as mercifully on him as he did on Matthew, and looks on all of us in the same way.
So here’s the challenge if we take Jesus at his word: do I believe that I am not rubbish in God’s sight, that God does not frown or scowl when He sees or thinks of me, that whatever my past or however late I return to his love God delights in me, even if He wants better for me than my current situation?
Pope Francis has described the Church as a ‘field hospital’ where the wounded and suffering are cared for, where ‘everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven’, viewed in mercy and not in harsh judgement. To live up to this, we strive to make our Church warm and welcoming, accepting people as they are, not as we want them to be; accepting people’s relationships as they are – stressed, messy and broken or harmonious and calm. It also challenges us to do away with the perception that in the eyes of the Church only perfection is good enough; and that Christ’s Church is not just for the good and the saintly but for the ordinary and the average, for people just like us.
The Church is the one place where we can experience the understanding, compassion and mercy of God, where young or old, married, single or divorced – and whatever your sexuality – we feel valued, not judged, and supported in having a loving relationship with Christ.
May God grant us the grace to see ourselves through the Lord’s eyes of mercy, and to see others as God sees them.
Holy Name, Jesmond
24 September 2017