Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 20, 2020
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

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

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus teaches with a parable that underlines the overwhelming generosity and mercy of God announced by Isaiah in our first reading. The workers who arrive late at the vineyard could be referred to as outcasts separated from the fullness of the religious life of Israel, while those who work all day can be taken as those dutiful to the law of God all their lives.

These dutiful and law-abiding people were continually offended at Jesus’ interaction with the outcasts and the unclean, or the scoundrels and wicked as Isaiah calls them. Jesus’ reply to such criticism is both kind and stern. “Are you envious because I am generous?”After all, even based on strict justice, the payment of the all-day workers is honest and even generous.

As we hear the final sentences of the Gospel, Jesus directs our questioning, reflection, and prayer toward His generosity and the need for our humility. The generosity of Jesus reveals to us the generosity of the Father in sending His Son to save us — the preeminent merciful act to which none of us are entitled. “Are you envious because I am generous? Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”We are all sinners in need of forgiveness, but those who come to a realization of their need for God’s mercy will be drawn into the joy of His immeasurable love, while those who think and feel themselves to be only dutiful observers of His law may miss the gift of God’s glory that He offers us daily, or even miss God Himself.

Does the parable offend our sense of fairness and justice, or does it call us to enter more deeply into faith and trust in God’s authentic justice and mercy? Does the parable challenge us to rely on God’s grace — the daily bread for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer? This is the daily bread that the Master in the parable provides according to His own generosity to all who belong and labor in His vineyard.

We are tempted to take our stand against the landowner along with those who were hired first and paid last. But as Isaiah reveals the words of the Lord in today’s first reading, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” If parables are to reveal the mysteries of God’s Kingdom, then we cannot look at this one as simply a lesson in the rules of justice and morality of labor relations. If we did, we would miss the point and reduce God’s ways and thoughts to fit our own.

What this parable focuses on is divine generosity and our conversion to God’s way, not simply the human justice, human equality, and human fairness of a fallen world. The landowner is more than an employer, he represents God and the laborers represent all of those who are adopted into His People by Him. The currency in God’s Kingdom is mercy, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness, and we are paid according to our need as well as our merit in light of the fullness of the truth. Saint Paul reminds us today that life is a gift and its goods are wonderful and worthy of our esteem, but they are nothing compared to the love of Christ — a love that sets us free and is unconditional. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

Christ shows us in His full humanity, through His words, through His actions, and through His Cross, what human thinking, human speaking, and human acting in unity with the high thoughts and lofty ways of the Father looks like. Christ’s gift to us of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, with His accompanying gifts and graces, enables us to think, to speak, and to act according to the high thoughts and lofty ways of God. Through His generosity and grace, His thoughts and ways soon transform our thoughts, our ways, our words, and our actions. For Jesus Christ is the answer to the prayer expressed in the 145th Psalm we prayed today: “the Lord is near to all who call on Him.”

Yet, we are tempted to act like the laborers who are first hired and paid last and try to reduce the high thoughts and lofty ways of God to the thoughts and ways of the limited scope and logic of our fallen world, a scope and logic that can only provide scarcity and suspicion, jealousy and resentment. This temptation currently looks like the misrepresentation of the Gospel of Life as only one part of a partisan platform or the fragmented positions of political candidates. To succumb to this temptation would make the Church subordinate to the power of the state through the public endorsement of candidates or the alignment of the Church with any one political party.

To be clear, the right to life is the preeminent human right established and given by God Himself as the right upon which all other human rights depend including: the right to the biologically determined and gendered integrity of human sexuality and marriage between one man and one woman, the right to family life, the right to religious liberty, the right to live in peace and security with sound borders, the right to migrate to sustain one’s life and the life of one’s family, the right to labor and a just and living wage, the right to private property, the right to clean and potable water, the right to be told the truth, the right to a good name, the right to basic healthcare, the right to access to an education sufficient for participation in the common good of a particular society to name but a few such rights. As Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in Christi Fideles Laici in 1988, “The inviolability of the human person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which  is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”

Thus, direct assaults on human life, especially upon vulnerable human life, through such social policies and practices as abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia cannot be supported or even tolerated for the sake of other rights or social goods to be enjoyed by others. We must begin with respect and protection of the inviolable right to life, but we as Catholics cannot end there. To live according to the high thoughts and lofty ways of God means that we must begin by respecting the inviolable right to life and to continue by respecting the other necessary human rights that are contingent upon the right to life. The high thoughts and lofty ways of God require of us the measured respect and fostering of each of these rights in an ordered and proportionate manner without exclusion of any of them for the sake of human dignity whereby the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This is in contradistinction with the ways of the fallen world that would entice us to break these rights apart and to mistreat them only as isolated and competitive points of self-interest within a partisan agenda where the first are first and the last are last.

The earliest name for the Church in the Acts of the Apostles is “the Way” which means “God’s way.” It most clearly does not mean “my way.” It is only by trust in God, nurtured through prayer and the grace of God, that we can be converted from our thoughts of undue entitlement and selfish ways to the high thoughts and lofty ways of God. Thoughts that without His grace are otherwise inaccessible to us. “The Lord is near to all who call on Him.”

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