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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Occam's Razor, the Treasure, and the Pearl (A17O)

As I listened to the very fine homily this morning in Glendale, AZ, as a member of the assembly for a change, there wasn't much I was "sorry" for. St. Thomas More is a beautiful church celebrating just its 20th anniversary as a parish. Many parishioners from my old parish, St. Jerome, seem to have migrated there, and there were even faces from St. Augustine, where I served over thirty-five years ago. And I ran into a former parishioner from Barrington, though it was long enough ago that our paths didn't cross. The choir was singing through the summer (kudos to them), they had very fine musicians playing drums and clarinet, and their keyboard player Hyung Mi graciously ceded the piano bench to me (for the selections I had written) and played the organ, so we had a wonderful morning of song under the able and hospitable direction of Steve Raml. My brother was singing in the choir, his wonderful adult son was with him, and it was wonderful to be with them.

If there were a single thing I would have wished for, you know, in that perfect world of imagination where nothing we actually experience ever measures up, it would have been a tiny bit more nuance in that homily. The priest, wonderfully prepared and clearly a beloved leader in the parish, spoke first about how parables aren't what we expect them to be. He spoke about how we expect Scripture to give us answers, to give us a road map (a GPS route, he said) to heaven. But, he warned, that's not what we get at all. It's more like a pointer. The kingdom of heaven is indescribable, even to Jesus, was his message. It is like to trying to say what love is like. We don't really have the words, so we use metaphors. All good so far, and especially the part about not looking for answers in the Scriptures, especially in the parables, especially in literal interpretations. The preacher even warned us that Jesus meant us to understand "the kingdom of heaven" not as something that will come later, or someplace we encounter after death, but a present reality that we are meant to live in here and now, in this world.

But then, there is the interpretation of these two parables, and what I heard was...pretty much the obvious. The kingdom is valuable, so much so that, when we find it, it replaces everything else we want, so we should go and give everything for it. 

Occam's razor, I think, would yield the same answer. Look for the simplest explanation, and it's probably right, we say. But the trouble with that and the scripture is in the mist that lies between us and Middle Eastern culture, in what's not said in the parables, and the difference between parables and other kinds of morality tales. So here are a few questions we need to deal with, at least as I see it, when we're unpacking the parables. 

"The kingdom of heaven is like..." How does this solution, i.e. the idea that Jesus simply meant "go for it with all you've got," tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like? 

Whose field is it? If the man found the treasure hidden in a field, then the treasure belongs to the owner of the field. The man is not entitled to it, and to purchase the field without telling the owner is unjust.

"He goes and sells all that he has..." Another caveat in the story is that line. So, once he sells all that he has and buys (unjustly) the treasure or in infatuation the pearl, how does he eat? Where does he live? If he reveals the treasure from his ill-purchased field, he'll be known as a scoundrel and shunned. As some commentators says, "He'll be a laughingstock," a pauper clutching his hidden treasure. 

"Hidden in a field"  The very idea of the kingdom being "hidden" is repugnant to Jewish and Christian theologies. I suppose that the kingdom might be hidden if our starting place is the locus of "I know where the kingdom of God is," in the sense that we can't find it, it's "hidden," because we're looking in the wrong place. It's openness is, ironically, invisible to us. But in Jewish theology, the reign of God is everywhere, it's the residue of God who created everything from nothing, or, more accurately, from self, from love. "The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord," says Psalm 33. In Christian theology, the idea that the kingdom is hidden from us, or that there's some secret we can be told or unlock to gain it, is clearly a kind of Gnosticism. Again, our best instinct tells us, in the light of the gospel, that the kingdom of God is available to everyone and is the free gift of God to those who desire it. No purchase required.

Of course, it's fair to hear the parables on the level where we are without attempting to try to get to what Jesus was actually trying to say twenty centuries ago. I don't see any harm in us wanting the reign of God above all our other possessions; it's just that, if it's worth giving everything for, we don't purchase it directly. We follow the invitation of Jesus, perhaps, to "sell all you have and give it to the poor," which seems to be the shortcut offered to at least one seeker by the master. 

The solution to this parabolic puzzle, at last the one that appeals to me most at this point in my living, is the one that resonates with my experience. Jesus may be trying to tell us to watch out, because wanting to "buy into" the kingdom by use of our talents or wealth may lead us to do things that are unsavory, unjust, or even antithetical to the kingdom itself. Imagining that we can "buy" God's grace and presence through any machinations of our own is ludicrous. Those of us in the church may find ourselves doing crazy things: making judgments about who is good enough to be a member, for instance, or imagining that we can exclusively or infallibly mediate God's favor. We may take shortcuts in ministry that enable us to exclude others from our churches, brush people aside, or define ourselves over against other groups of Christians or other faiths so as to make some claim upon God's favor. Anything we do that says, "I know God and you don't" is part of the craziness that imagines that it's worth betraying God's utter catholicity, God's diversity-in-unity that is our best image of God's nature, by "selling all that we have" of that being let into grace and in order to bar others from its warmth. In fact, we can't do it, and we're the ones left to weep in darkness of our own making, while the feast of the uninvited goes on within earshot, inside doors we've locked from the outside.

Or, maybe it isn't. I think it may be enough to be willing to give all for the reign of God, as long as we don't begin to think we have any kind of exclusive claim on it. But I also think that the world of the parables is an invitation to this kind of critical thinking about the strange words of our clever, open-hearted rabbi who would neither be silenced by the powerful nor countenance that there were any secret or exclusive paths to purchase the love of a God that is given freely, before we even had a mind with which to imagine asking for it. I like thinking sideways about them, and am grateful for those who ask us to engage the text on its own terms, and not imagine that there's a single way to hear the word of the Lord, the word that spoke,  and where there was nothing, everything, and every place and time, happened. 

Thank you, St. Thomas More, people, pastor, and musicians, for a wonderful experience of Church this weekend. Happy anniversary. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of it. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Albums 20: To You Who Bow (2017, GIA)

Finally. I'm so happy and proud to be able to introduce to you the latest recording from the Cooney-Daigle-Donohoo trio, To You Who Bow, released by GIA today at the 2017 NPM Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio.

We have been working a long time on this recording. I suppose I've told part of the story before when introducing Like No God We Had Imagined in 2015. We had recorded about half a dozen of these songs with the new songs on Like No God, thinking that it was an album. But when we stopped and listened to the results, it was difficult to imagine that anyone would want to listen to a recording with half Christmas songs and half regular "Sunday" songs at any time of the year, no matter who recorded them and no matter what the concept was. So we opted to take the Christmas songs we had recorded and take some "legacy" seasonal music from Safety Harbor, Stony Landscapes, Today, and Terry's wonderful 1998 recording On Christmas Day in the Morning, and create Like No God which was released two summers ago for NPM.

The title song from this recording, "To You Who Bow," was premiered at NPM in 2014 and was very well received, and was chosen to be included in the new edition of RitualSong which is being released this summer at the music conventions, including NPM. We had been negotiating with GIA since late 2013 on getting some new songs published, and after a long series of emails and meetings, by February 2014 we had letters of intent for about a dozen songs, including the new Christmas arrangements that were to appear later as Like No God, to be recorded. By November, the songs from the original agreements had been recorded, and I had already begun to express misgivings about releasing them together. In April of 2015, Michael Silhavy met with us, and we decided to go ahead an release the album of new Christmas music mixed with some legacy music, and explore recording some more songs to make a truly new collection of songs for liturgy.

After a meeting about content shortly after Christmas, in February of 2016, Michael thought that "If You Had Faith/Si Tuvieras Fe, a translation and SAB arrangement I had done of the Spanish folk song sometimes called Montaña, would fill a gap that GIA had in their NPM lineup for that year, and he asked us to go ahead and record that song right away so that a version could be ready in the summertime. At this time, we knew that we were going to include two songs from a 2013 compilation album called Gathered for God, those songs being Gary's lovely James Tayloresque version of Psalm 23 "The Lord Is My Shepherd," and my song "God Is Love," which ties together the statement about God in 1 John 4:16 with St. Paul's paean to agápe in 1 Cor. 13. We had recorded "Turn Around," "Gathered and Sent," "Send Out, Send Out," "Acts of God," and "To You Who Bow" with the Christmas music back in 2013-14. We decided to record seven more songs to make the new album complete.

For the tracking, we called in some of our friends from the olden days, notably Beth Lederman and
Matt McKenzie, along with Randy Carpenter, a childhood neighbor and lifelong friend of Gary's with whom he'd grown up playing in bands and making music. Beth and Matt both played with Gary in one incarnation of his ensemble while working at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, AZ. Beth is an amazingly talented jazz musician who is one of the busiest working women in the Phoenix area, with a great sensitivity to many Latin rhythms as well, so she is in great demand. Matt moved to Nashville back in the 90s, and has worked with Lyle Lovett, Don Williams, Patty Loveless, and most recently has toured with Olivia Newton-John's band. This incredible trio of musicians did the rhythm tracks for those last seven songs in less than three days in the spring of 2016.

Matt McKenzie
With the rhythm tracking done, Gary turned to a group of singers gathered by Paul Rausch, a McHenry choral director who had built a great program at McHenry High School over the years, and who had a group of alumni who were always ready to work with him again. Terry and I were constantly impressed and amazed at the way this group worked together, how whenever they felt out of synch on a vowel sound or an articulation they would confer on one member or another and come up with a solution in seconds. Four of Paul's sons, also alumni, also sang in this ensemble. An impressive group.

Over the next few weeks, Gary took the opportunity to add instrumental overdubs to the tracks. Over the years since writing the songs, most of them had acquired small orchestral scores; some, in fact, had been commissioned for small church orchestras. To achieve a consistent sound on the recording, Gary tends to seriously adapt parts I've written, substituting much smaller groupings of instruments for what I wrote, and the results, I have learned, are invariably better. In this case, we also got the help of local saxophonist and arranger Jim Gailloreto to write pop horn arrangements for "Si Tuvieras Fe," "Jesus Christ the Cornerstone," "Eyes on the Prize," and "Mary, Don't You Weep," and his parts are both playable for most players we tend to use in our churches and wonderfully adapted to the style and feel of the songs themselves. By the end of September, 2016, the recordings were pretty much in their final form. In November, Gary was able to deliver the mastered CD to GIA.

Terry doing her thing
It was a wonderful surprise that John Flaherty asked to use "O Agápe" at the 2017 LA Religious Education Congress in March of this year. John is one of the folks I like to bounce new material off of, and he remembered this one when he was in planning sessions for the Congress liturgies, and used it for a call to worship. Unfortunately, we were not able to have an octavo ready in time for the conference, but at least the song got some unexpected exposure on the left coast!

This is the list of tracks in play order:

Acts of God 
To You Who Bow
Gathered and Sent 
God Is Love
Eyes on the Prize (Hold On) (African American Spiritual, text adapted RC, arr. RC)
Jesus Christ the Cornerstone
Psalm 18: I Love You (ICEL text)
Psalm 29: The Temple and the Storm
Psalm 23  (ICEL text, music by Gary Daigle)
Turn Around 
Psalm 13: How Long
O Agápe
Psalm 104: Send Out, Send Out (ICEL text)
If You Had Faith/Si Tuvieras Fe (Latin American folk, arr. Rory Cooney, English text by Rory Cooney)
Mary, Don’t You Weep (African American Spiritual, text adapted RC, arr. RC)

Matt and Beth working it out
The “beating heart” of this collection is that Jesus is the “face of God’s mercy,” or as the gospel puts it, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” If Jesus is one who puts aside glory to be a person of service, healing, and reconciliation, that is also what God looks like, and the Holy Spirit who is the life of God enables us to live that life in God in this world in a community of mutuality. There are other gods that want our allegiance, most of whom are idols devised by us ourselves, and propagated by us when we decide that we have a better idea about civilization than the Sermon on the Mount. There are gods of war, gods of violence and threats, gods of money and influence. But we cannot serve two masters. The gospel invites us to listen to the voice that calls us with unswerving love in our creation and baptism, and to follow the way of Jesus to a world formed by loving service. The songs in this collection, in one way or another, orbit around that axis. Thus the title song, “To You Who Bow,” honors the God who “did not cling to godliness, but took the form of a slave,” showing us the slow, peaceful way to transforming the earth.

Two of the songs, "Acts of God" and "Gathered and Sent" were commissioned by Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago for various events, thanks to the generosity of the parish and Bill Fraher, the music director at the time, who continues to direct their special events choirs after passing the liturgical baton to Dominic Trumfio, Jennifer Budziak, and Mark Scozzafave since that time. That parish's great tradition of energetic sung worship and supporting the arts in general continues to be a model for Chicagoland parishes.

Turn Around was commissioned for a parish formation program in Catholic social teaching designed by Jack Jezreel and the folks at JustFaith. The title, “Turn Around,” is a literal translation of the word metanoia, which is often rendered as “conversion” or “repentance.” What the word suggests is a literal turning and going in a different direction, starting from within the heart and mind of a person, then directing one’s actions in the world. It is a call to action that echoes the gospel call to “Repent (i.e., turn around) and believe the good news.” I think it might help congregations refresh and sense anew what conversion really is, hear the call again evangelically, and make a change toward the gospel.

God Is Love - Came from an idea that love is one, though it manifests itself in different ways. In the Greek of 1 John 4:16 and 1 Cor. 13 the word for “love” used by the authors of those letters is agápe, the highest of the four (or five, or six) kinds of love expressed by different words in Greek. So it made sense to me that, as St. Paul writes in Corinthians, if “love is patient, love is kind,” then we ought to be able to say that not only is the human person (especially the Christian) who loves is patient and kind, but also Christ, and also the God of whom Christ is the “living face.” In this song, with 1 Jn 14:16 for the refrain and 1 Cor. 13 for the verses, those concepts get blended in the choral third verse, in which the choir’s “God is love” refrain dovetails with the litany from Corinthians in such a way that the word “love” serves both as the end of one phrase and the beginning of another. 

Two songs in this collection, Eyes on the Prize (Hold On) and Mary, Don’t You Weep have been recorded by dozens, if not hundreds, of artists through the years, expanded and interpreted in the spiritual and folk traditions by artists as diverse as Pete Seeger, Odetta, Bruce SpringsteenMahalia JacksonMavis Staples, and Aaron Neville. As for me, I wondered as I listened to various versions which “Mary” was being referred to in the song, and I think it means Mary Magdalene. But maybe it was Mary the sister of Lazarus, I don’t know. So rather than try to pull it one way or the other, I wrote three different lyrics for different events: one for Mary, Lazarus’s sister, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, one for Magdalene, for Easter Vigil and the Easter season, and another one for all the Marys and the last Sundays of the year. As for Eyes on the Prize (Hold On), in this world, these times, we just need that song all the time.

Please give To You Who Bow a listen! I know that there are songs here that your congregation and will enjoy singing, and can become a part of your repertoire. And I'm prejudiced, of course, but I believe that To You Who Bow is our best "listening" experience since Vision. Gary has done a great job with this recording, and the nearly fifty singers and other musicians who took part in its creation have done a wonderful job.

A special word of thanks, too, to Alec Harris and Michael Silhavy at GIA who stood with us during this project, and to the amazing Andrew Schultz who designed the cover and all the enclosures and design work. We're very proud of our work with GIA over the twenty-eight years we've been working with them, and grateful for the support and trust we've received over the years from everyone there. Thank you.

Friday, July 7, 2017

SongStories 50: (I Myself Am the) Bread of Life (Mystery, 1987; Change Our Hearts, 2000, OCP)

(I Myself Am the) Bread of Life is dedicated to the people of St. Jerome Parish, Phoenix, Arizona. When I was writing this song, it must have been a Mark (B) year in the lectionary, probably mid-1985. I remember sitting with the leaders (late high school, college age and some adults) of the youth group, talking with them about the Eucharist, and what an expansive theology of real presence was available to us in our tradition, and that we ourselves are the bread of life for other people, not because of anything we did, but because in baptism it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, by the presence of the Holy Spirit. They told me to write a song about that, so I did.

We were still in the midst of a kind of liturgical renaissance in Phoenix at that time. We had been blessed with some kind and enlightened liturgical leadership over the years in Phoenix, notably by people like the late Sr. Anthony Poerio, IBVM, who headed the Office of Worship for many years, and also (Fr.) Michael Martinez, who oversaw liturgy at the Cathedral of Ss. Simon and Jude, where I had directed the choir for a time. Daniel (now Rev. Cyprian) Consiglio and Fr. Dale Fushek had done fine work at St. Jerome's in the early 1980s, as had Fr. Bob Voss and others. The Franciscans at the Casa de Paz y Bien, or the Franciscan Renewal Center (FRC), as well as many of the local clergy were trying to do imaginative things with the liturgy. But what really reconnected Phoenix liturgy with the heart of the tradition as well as with the art community in the city was the arrival of John Gallen, SJ, as liturgy director at the FRC, and his subsequent hiring of Gary Daigle as music director, followed very quickly by his establishment of a "liturgical center" in a downtown Phoenix mall that he called "The Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Study." Gallen, in collaboration with the diocese, offered there a two-year certification in liturgy, and brought in some of the real lights of the renewal to teach classes: Virgil Funk, Kevin Irwin, Robert Taft, SJ, Austin Fleming, Fr. Ronald Pachence, John Baldovin, SJ, and Robert Rambusch among many others. John's classes opened up my heart, already full of delight with the liturgy and liturgical music, to new insights and an even deeper theological grounding. It was from this matrix that the songs from Mystery arose, and everything that I've written since.

Since I've written more about this song than probably any other song, I don't see any reason to change my mind about it! Early in the life of this blog, I wrote a couple of posts called "Theological Tempests in Musical Teapots," one of which was devoted to "Bread of Life." I won't rehash what's in that article here, but if you  want a survey of the kinds of things written to and about me regarding this song, and my response, you can click the link. The purpose of the "Tempests" post wasn't to talk about the origin and use of the song, but to answer some of the angry and divisive polemic leveled against it over the years. As I said there, if your pastor or a vocal group of well-meaning parishioners has an issue with the song and are not persuaded by our appeal to scripture, the liturgy, Saints Paul and Augustine, there's no use causing a rift in the community or losing sleep yourself over a dumb song. Just sing something else. I'm grateful beyond words to both NALR for publishing it originally and OCP for continuing to include it in their worship aids up to the present day, under the watchful eye of the BCDW.

Since the song was published, I have written verses that use language and imagery from the "Bread of Life" Sundays in Year B, but of course they may be useful to you at any time, if your communion processions take longer than the original three verses provide for. If you'd like to see those verses, there is a graphic available for download here for assembly, and a PDF of the choral parts here. I think I might have altered the choral parts a little accidentally: just fix them up the way to which you're accustomed.

Bread of Life page at OCP

(I Myself Am the) Bread of Life 
by Rory Cooney 

I myself am the bread of life.
You and I are the bread of life,
Taken and blessed,
Broken and shared by Christ
That the world might live.

This bread is spirit, gift of the Maker's love,
And we who share it know that we can be one,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Here is God's kingdom given to us as food.
This is our body, this our blood,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Lives broken open, stories shared aloud,
Become a banquet, a shelter for the world,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Supplemental verses written in 2012

Full cup of blessing, free as the rain and sun,
Is passed among us, gathering all to one,
A living sign of God in Christ.

We, like Elijah, hunted, afraid, alone,
Receive in slumber food for the path unknown,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Taste Wisdom's table, spread with the richest fare.
The poor and simple dine at her calling there,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Sent from this banquet, strength in our hearts restored,
We go together, summoned to serve the Lord,
A living sign of God in Christ.

Copyright © 1987, 2009 by NALR, published by OCP, Portland, Oregon. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Second Thoughts: Love is not jealous (A13O)

I suspect a lot of gospel readers would have liked to have skipped the first half of last Sunday's gospel. I know for sure a lot of us would rather not have listened to it. It's not that I want the gospel to say what I want it to say, that I don't agree with Jesus. It's that what the gospel actually says can't be what I heard, because it would indicate inner contradiction in the message of Jesus. The first half of the gospel would be teaching that Jesus is a jealous lover, a rival for the affection of the disciple with the very people that God put into one's life for all the reasons that we know family and friends exist. The second half would indicate that there is a "reward" at the end of the stick of obedience, both taking the gospel out of the realm of love (i.e. to do a thing for a reward is not doing it for love) and creating a debt that God has to pay for people doing what they are supposed to do. Both of those things are abhorrent to me. 

The juxtaposition of "love me" and "worthy of me" just doesn't work in English, and it certainly doesn't work in any language coming out of the mouth of the same Christ whose Sermon on the Mount (echoed by a passage a couple of weeks ago) told us that God cares for us more than ravens and sparrows and lilies, and we shouldn't worry about anything, and God is like a father to us, that, in fact, 
I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
So what does this egalitarian love have to do with worthiness?

As I said last week in my Wednesday post, we know from experience that the best kind of love we've ever known has exactly nothing to do with worthiness. It's a bolt out of the blue, as the saying goes, that stops us in our tracks and has us babbling "Hallelujah" like David and Samson and the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in the eponymous and ubiquitous tune of the same name. What we know is that love doesn't depend on the beloved, it comes from the lover, and it is a gift, and in its only genuine form, requires nothing in return, and doesn't even nod toward worthiness. Nobody is worthy. Or rather, everyone is worthy because of the created spark of the divine in every person, but when the lover is in touch with that holy fire, worthiness isn't even up for discussion. It's a complete non-issue. Love is given without restriction, it is created from nothing like the best and rest of the universe. It shares in the Being of the one from whom all loving flows. Love, in the beautiful, if Gertrude-Steinian poetry of a joy-drunk Lin-Manuel Miranda, "is love is love is love is love is love is love." Love empowers a response, it doesn't demand it; love enables change, it doesn't expect it. 

Love, says St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, is not jealous. It is unthinkable that Jesus, the "visible face of God's mercy," would have placed such a strange restriction on his love to his closest disciples. If "love is not jealous" is meant to describe the relationship among members of the Corinthian church community to whom St. Paul was writing, certainly it is an attribute of the God who is love. God is patient. God is kind. God does not put on airs, is not jealous.

So what is Jesus saying when he says…
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his crossand follow after me is not worthy of me.
This whole section of Matthew must be tied to the message that MT is trying to get to the church for which the gospel is being compiled. Perhaps, as John Meyer suggests, the community is split along generational lines, causing rifts in the church, during a time of persecution. Chapter ten of Matthew began with the commissioning of the disciples to preach the gospel, with a no-nonsense warning that they should not expect to be received with universal praise. Ultimately it is not about Jesus that the warnings are given, but about the gospel that he is preaching, and how it is received or not by the community. To all the warnings in this chapter about persecution and the possibility of being rejected, Jesus gives the divine advice from the Jewish scriptures: Do not be afraid. 

For me, the second section of the gospel is just as problematic: the promise of reward for doing good. On one hand, this is straight Deuteronomic morality: if you do good, you get rewarded. If you do evil, evil will befall you. Jesus does not usually teach this way, in fact, his teaching about God in chapter 5, quoted above, is that God lets the sun and rain fall upon the good and bad alike; he makes a parable about weeds and wheat growing together until the final harvest when God will sort it all out with a wisdom more discerning than our scythes and uprooting. Jesus is always more aware that bad things happen to good people, and bad people sometimes seem to be the ones blessed. His concept of God and morality is much more nuanced than the most popular brand of Judaism. As one teacher put it, with the book of Job (and much of the wisdom literature), the Deuteronomist should have died a quick death in the 3rd century BCE. But we seem to be hard-wired for the reward and punishment schema, and we just can't quit it. 

It seems to me that a way of reading "reward" might be to understand it as the natural result of acting the way we were made to act. We're children of God. We're made from love, we're made to love. We're made for generosity, to look out for one another. When we act according to the way we're made, we're happy. It's not a reward. We're just not kicking against the grain. We're floating on a downstream river of loving energy, not swimming upstream and doing everything we can to torpedo our destiny and betray our nature. "A good tree can't bear bad fruit, and a bad tree can't bear good fruit." It's not a matter of reward and punishment; it's a matter of being who we are meant to be, and we are all meant to be sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, who care for each other and the world in the way we wish we were being treated, even if we aren't being treated that way, and we act that way toward everyone, even if they're not in the same game. 

Finally, by the time the gospel of Matthew was written, the "normalcy of civilization" was beginning to swirl back around the path through the sea that Jesus and the gospel had opened up. Human beings really don't want a God of distributive justice, a God of freedom and love. We want a god of talion justice, who takes at least an eye when an eye is taken; we want a god who gives us ours, whether or not it has to be taken from someone else. We've been treated badly, we think. We deserve better. God will give it to us, and just to be sure, we create a god who do just what we want. This god, probably an Assyrian-Egyptian-Greek-Roman hybrid with a big army, a palace with a prison, and a phalanx of accountants and torturers, was ready to step in and fill the void. Jesus who said in the Sermon on the Mount that "whoever calls his brother a fool shall be liable to judgment" became the Jesus who called the scribes and Pharisees fools, murderers, and whitewashed tombs. Jesus whose parables proclaimed that God will sort out the good and bad in the end cursed, in the same gospel, towns and villages and fig trees. The further we get away from Jesus, from Paul's letters to the Corinthians and Romans, and from the gospel of Mark, the more the message contains hints of compromise with Rome and gospel of Caesar, of an expedient if bloody peace on earth through violence, and a Jesus who sounds, now and then, like the petulant, narrow-minded preachers that overpopulate the airwaves of the twenty-first century. 

But the resurrection happened, and the Risen One came back without any word of revenge, still proclaiming God's merciful love and universal forgiveness at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Spirit of God was visibly loosed upon the world in a few fallible women and men utterly changed by their experience of their rabbi, dead and risen. Empowered by their experience, they went out to persuade people everywhere that there was a better world available to anyone willing to turn toward their neighbor and see a child of another God. The "reward" of conversion, of turning from the worship of Caesar to the God of Jesus, was life in a community of equals, of living in a new family that lived in faith of God's distributive justice where all were meant to have enough, and in whose world there is enough for all when it is shared. 

The rich young man in Mark 10 wanted to know the secret of getting in on eternal life, and when Jesus told him it was as simple as sharing what he had and trusting he'd have enough, he "went away sad." Gospel life is its own reward; opting for any other way is its own punishment. We were made for each other. Gospel life is living in the awareness that the world belongs to God, and every person is made in God's image.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
God is love is love is love is love. That is the good news, no matter what the gospel may seem to say to the contrary!