Sunday, September 18, 2011

We Don't Get What We Deserve

25 Sunday A #133

Is 55, 6-9
Ps 145
Phil 1, 20c-24. 27a
Mt 20, 1-16

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
September 18, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

It’s been a year since I’ve been able to speak to you from this spot. It was shingles, a severe case of shingles. And after the shingles cleared up, neuralgia set in, nerve pain where the shingles had been. The pain is enough to leave anyone limp. It’s still there, but not as bad. There’s a vaccine now to prevent shingles. It costs a couple of hundred dollars. Medicare will pick up much of the cost. You don’t want to go through this. I shouldn’t complain, really. I was young for a long time, 76 years. Now, all of a sudden, I’m old. At 77 I suppose it’s time. Get that shot! Now let’s take a look at today’s readings.

Today’s Gospel reading is not a recommendation for the reform of labor law. (By the way, have you noticed that politicians use the word “reform” when they really mean “weaken” or “destroy” in talking about Social Security or Medicare? But that’s another matter.) Here in today’s Gospel we have a parable of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven.

The owner of the vineyard stands for God. The laborers are all of us. God keeps looking for more laborers all through the day. Some of us came to the vineyard early. Or rather, we were brought to baptism as infants and grew up and were confirmed in the Faith and never abandoned it. Others, though baptized, never really appropriated the Faith until later in life. They were baptized but not evangelized. Still others sought baptism as adults or even as old folks at the verge of death, coming to belief literally only at the last. I think of an old uncle of mine, long gone, Uncle Lawrence, Zio Laurienz’. He went to church three times in his life, and twice they had to carry him in, for his baptism and his funeral. He made it on his own for his wedding, at age 14! He was a skeptic and a cynic; he mocked the Church and the priests and all of us faithful who supported them. But at the last I pray that he held his hand out to Jesus, as Peter did when he was sinking, and asked for mercy. Did he get it? Let us hope so.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found,” Isaiah warns. While he may be found! We must not presume.

“He is near to all who call upon him,” sings our Psalm. “He is kind and merciful… compassionate to all his works… near to all who call upon him.”

Paul was touched by God mightily on the Road to Damascus, thrown from his horse. Then he was so filled with energy and enthusiasm for the Faith that he, more than any of the other Apostles, spread the Faith throughout the Mediterranean world. And yet he so yearned for the kingdom that he could write, “I long to be freed from this life and to be with Christ… . Yet it is more important that I live for your sakes. Conduct yourselves, then, in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

In today’s parable all the workers get the same wage no matter how long they worked. This is a metaphor for entrance into God’s kingdom. Is that fair? In God’s economy it is! Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? Would any of us be jealous or complain if we, who have born the heat of the day, faithful all our lives, were to find Uncle Lawrence at the Lord’s banquet table in heaven? I’d be overjoyed to see the old rascal! So we pray for our dead, that at the last they held out their hand to the Lord. We can pray now for them then because with God there is no time.

There is one startling sentence in this reading that deserves a closer look. “I am free to do as I please with my money, am I not?” says the master of the vineyard. No, my friends, he is not. Remember this is a parable, a metaphorical teaching device. Jesus was not giving a lesson in social justice in this story but a lesson in the infinite mercy of God. But it poses an important question. I have heard it said many times, “It’s my money. I earned it by my own hard work. I can do with it what I please! Can’t I?”

You can, brother, yes you certainly can, but you may not! Not if you wish to conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Catholic Social Teaching for over one hundred and ten years has been strong and clear on this. On the one hand, all God’s creation is meant for the benefit of all God’s children. On the other hand, the Church defends the right to private property. That seems like a contradiction. How are these principles to be harmonized? By the principle of the common good. We have a right to own property, not just our toothbrushes but productive property as well, our farms and factories and shops, most definitely, and we have a right to the fruits of our labor. “Property is proper to man” (Peter Maurin). But that right is not absolute. It is limited by the requirements of the common good (cf. Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII, 1891). As individuals we deal with balancing our rights and our needs with the rights and needs of others in the privacy of our own consciences. As a community we determine tax law and regulations democratically, whether to have them and how much.

One of the functions of government is the redistribution of wealth (cf. Mater et Magistra, Pope Paul John XXIII, 1961). We’ve all played the board game Monopoly. How many winners are there at the end? One! Unregulated capitalism results in money and power funneling up into fewer and fewer hands. The game Monopoly was invented by a pious Quaker lady to teach that very lesson. The problem with unregulated capitalism is that “ it doesn’t get enough capital to enough people” (G.K. Chesterton).

A just, not to say a Christian society will not allow the defenseless to fend for themselves. Twenty-five years ago, our bishops declared that all economic and social policy initiatives should take into account first their effect upon the most vulnerable among us, the poor, the young, the sick, the elderly and the unborn. Not as an after-thought, but first and above all (cf. Economic Justice for All, USCC, 1986).

God will not be outdone in generosity, and man will not be outdone in greed and selfishness, or so it would seem. But then we see acts of self-sacrificing generosity as at the Twin Towers ten years ago and our hope is renewed in the Spirit, for still “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods, with warm breast and with ah, bright wings.” (God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins). He is near to all who call upon him.

It’s so good to be back. Twenty-three years ago, when I was ordained a deacon, I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me to proclaim the Gospel and to break open the word of God with you. It is a great privilege, one I don’t deserve. But neither does anyone else. There are others in this congregation who might hear the call to diaconate or to priesthood, or to the religious life as a sister or brother. Pray for them. None of us is worthy. But God’s grace and mercy are infinite. We don’t get what we deserve. Thanks be to God!

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