Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 9/18/11 – Will You Be First or Last?


25 Ordinary A – September 18, 2011 – Will You Be First or Last?

Isaiah 55:6-9, Psalm 145:2-3,8-9,17-18, Phil 1:20c-24, 27a, Matthew 20:1-16a

Today’s complete biblical texts

The last will be first and the first will be last. This well known one-liner is perplexing. Is it about the last judgement and who will get into heaven? Have you ever worried about getting into heaven? Consider the stories before and after this gospel. A rich man asks Jesus what he must do to get into heaven (Mt. 19:16-30) and a mother begs Jesus to make sure her two sons get in (Mt. 20:20-28). In both cases Jesus gives a warning against boasting about our good works. He cautions about presuming to be favored or to be first to get to eternal paradise. [1]

These words are thought by some to be a punch line added to the original story. They could have something to do with what it means to be a disciple. Are there any rewards for taking on the work that Jesus did? That is what a disciple is. Apparently, Peter was claiming that, because he and others left everything behind to follow Jesus, they ought to be first in line to reap the rewards of heaven. Jesus, in this story, says, I’ve got news for you!  There is no correlation between the amount of work done on earth and divine rewards. Are you now wondering what you are doing here this morning? Although prizes sometime come our way they are not the purpose for advancing the kin-dom of God now. [2]

Although the parable is not about labor relations it does remind us of the present situation in this country regarding jobs. Who gets a job? Who doesn’t? Who is paid fairly and who is not? We know what is happening. Productive workers, even with seniority, are suddenly fired; people with skills and incentive cannot find work; college graduates see their career dreams postponed if not entirely crushed.

While these commentaries are helpful to us, this parable is really about unexpected generosity. God rewards human beings in surprising ways. Everyone one of us can remember when someone surprised us with an act of kindness. Perhaps there was a time when we acted generously toward someone else on the spot. Can you think of those moments now?

How often have we heard in this country, “There’s more where that came from?” Well, in the time of Jesus people in the Middle East did not expect that there was an endless supply of food or jobs. So, the owner of the vineyard in today’s gospel, like other employers, felt a responsibility to provide work if he could. Throughout the day, he would go to the marketplace to offer jobs to those eager to work. (The same happens today in many cities where you see vans stopping to pick up migrant workers early in the morning.) At the end of the day, out of concern for the workers and their families, this employer decided to pay everyone the same amount, no matter how long they worked. We can imagine the grumbling by some … and the surprise for others.

The teachings of Jesus again turn the tables on us. What else would we expect from God today who is always present but sometimes seems elusive? In the first reading the prophet Isaiah reminds his listeners that, God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. So, the less deserving just might receive as much as the more deserving. It’s hard to tell and we should not judge. This teaching certainly clashes with American economic ideas of equal opportunity, contracts and seniority. [3]

The quizzical line, those who are first will be last and vice versa, will always be a brain teaser for us. Given the different ways to interpret the story there seems to be a prevailing thread — a concern for a common good. There are people all around us who need our help. We ourselves might need assistance. Perhaps a twist on the golden rule is appropriate for us this Sunday morning. Do for others what you would want others to do for you. And … do not worry about getting into heaven!

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1 Oxford Bible Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16

2 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Third Edition (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2006, 181-183

3 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1995, 139-141.


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9/11/11 – Homily – Ten Years Later and Years To Go


24 Ordinary A September 11, 2011 – Ten Years Later

Sirach 27:30-28:7, Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12, Romans 14:7-9, Matthew 18:21-35

Today’s biblical texts

On our way to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima some years ago my companions and I were on a rather empty local bus. I was sitting directly across an elderly Japanese gentleman. I judged him to be old enough to have survived or at least have a memory of that morning on August 6 in 1945 when our country dropped the atomic bomb on that city. Historical justifications for our attack did not ease my uncomfortable and embarrassed feelings. I wondered, as we briefly exchanged glances, if he was holding a grudge against me for how my country annihilated that city in a flash. Did he still want some sort of revenge?

Today, as we well know, marks the tenth anniversary of the attack on our land by terrorists. We remember with sadness the lives lost on that day. We grieve with families and friends left behind. We sympathize with survivors whose lives have been physically and psychologically altered. We still applaud the first responders. As the media continues to mark the occasion, what are we thinking during this act of worship? How have we as a nation, as a church, changed because of 9/11?

Before the attacks we thought of ourselves as a mighty and proud nation and much of the global community concurred. Our mainland borders have never before been breached by enemies. We felt strong, safe and secure. Although not all of us shared privilege and wealth in the same way, as a country we were independent and rich. Then out of a clear blue sky in spite of our nation’s military might we came face to face with our vulnerability.

That wonderful characteristic of our country, the impulse to help each other when it counts, became immediately evident as people regardless of differences came together in solidarity to help. The word of Paul to the Romans came alive on that day, “None of us lives for oneself. None of us dies for oneself.” Has that sense of unity waned in the United States in recent years?

As a predominantly Christian nation instead of forgiving those who trespassed against us, our country sought revenge and we are still waging two costly wars. Instead of being in solidarity with those Muslims who were also hurt and offended by the terrorist acts, many citizens in our nation have grown in hatred, fear and suspicion of them. We are grateful for the interfaith quest for tolerance.

The word of God this morning is coincidently appropriate and succinct in its message. Forgive injustice.The author of Sirach says we cannot hate our neighbors and then expect to be forgiven our sins. Psalm 103 says God pardons our sins, redeems our lives from destruction and calls us to be kind and compassionate. The story in Matthew’s gospel is an example of what unfortunately is still common behavior among some people. We want to be forgiven for whatever grievance we heap upon others. However, when the time comes to return the favor some are reluctant to do so. Still the Word of God challenges us to forgive others as we expect to be forgiven.

Our country is not so innocent when it comes to torturing or killing people or ravaging the goods of the earth. Our unquenchable thirst for freedom, wealth, and security can also turn us collectively into an aggressive and fierce nation state, distrustful of others and often cynical and mean spirited in dealing even with our selves. We love our country but “other lands have sunlight too and clover and skies are everywhere as blue as ours.” [1]

No doubt we have been humbled since September 11, 2001. Since then many people have reordered their priorities in life to focus only on what matters most. Has that changed? Today the trouble we are in as a country is not caused by terrorists. We are the only ones who can do the forgiving of our debts. Together with elected officials we take the blame for spending the money we do not have, for living beyond our means, for advancing our own agendas while risking the lives and livelihoods of others both here and abroad.

Our faith tradition calls us to live with the imperfections of the world but to never ever stop imagining the possibilities for renewal, for finding beauty in the midst of what is ugly. Our faith, our hope and works of charity can turn fear, suspicion, greed and hatred into kindness, humility, and boundary breaking hospitality. As noted in the Pax Christi Statement on 9/11 we can join others to “write a new chapter and create a new legacy, one that heals rather than harms, for all those whose lives were shattered on 9-11” and are still broken and troubled today.

I never had a chance to speak to that man sitting on the bus in Hiroshima. Now, I wish I did. I would I have said, “I am sorry” hoping that he would have said, “I forgive you.”

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1 Finlandia. Verse 2 by Lloyd Stone, 1934. Music by Jean Sibelius, 1865-1957