Sunday, September 20, 2020

Go Into My Vineyard

This morning we have from Jesus yet another parable on the kingdom. In it we have a landowner who goes out at various times during the day to contract workers to work in his vineyard. The first group he hires at the first hour of the day after agreeing with them for the usual daily wage. The last group he hires toward the end of the day and they work only an hour. At the end of the day each of the groups receive their pay beginning with the last. When the first group sees that the last group receives the usual daily wage, they assume they will receive more. However, to their consternation, their pay is the same, the usual daily wage. 

Those who were hired at the first hour grumbled against the landowner because to their mind he had violated the just order. The landowner takes one of the complainers aside and reminds him of the terms of the contract they had agreed upon, the usual daily wage. Therefore, the landowner had not done anything wrong but justly and honestly fulfilled the contract. He is in no way obligated to pay him more than they had agreed upon. The issue then is whether or not it was just to pay the workers hired at the end of the day the same pay as the first. For me the most straightforward and satisfying response I found was in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, which said that he was “free to [pay them the full daily wage] but he was not obligated to do it.” Justice requires that those hired at the eleventh hour “are owed wages commensurate with their work, which means they were only owed a small fraction of the usual payment. But justice is not violated if the landowner, having met his contractual obligations, chooses to be generous with some who are undeserving of more money than that.”

The parable clearly highlights God’s extravagant divine generosity and cautions us against envy. Envy, as we remember, is different from jealousy. When we are jealous, we desire to attain or possess what another person has. Envy is the sin of being upset at another’s good fortune. We can find ourselves falling into envy on the material level, at another person’s wealth, possessions, job, successes, but it is particularly troubling when it strikes us on the level of spiritual gifts. The brother, in whose gifts I ought to rejoice and thank God, first of all for his own sake, but also because his gifts not only do not take anything away from me but actually benefit me, is perceived by me as a threat. We wind up disturbed interiorly and setting ourselves against God and our neighbor.

How do we avoid envy and get out of its throes once we’ve fallen into its grasp? We are led out by the same thing that triggered it, that is, the divine justice and goodness. So that is what I’d like to focus on this morning, God’s justice and extravagant goodness.

Like we just saw in the parable, there is in an inner worldly or creaturely justice or righteousness that God respects. It belongs to the order of his creation, even in its fallen condition. On the other hand, as good and just in himself, God infinitely transcends our notions of what is good and just. We only know what they are just as we only know him because he has sent his only Son to make him known. As John says in his prologue: No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (Joh 1:18 RSV)

When Jesus speaks of his Father, as he does in this passage, he always speaks out of his own experience.  If Jesus speaks of God as at one and same time sovereignly and freely righteous and the source of extravagant superabundant unmerited grace, this is because this is the God he knows.

To explore this a bit, I’d like to leave the world of Matthew to immerse ourselves in the world of John, at the point where we find Jesus at prayer among his disciples at the end of the Farewell Discourses, just before they are about to depart, and Jesus is betrayed, the disciples flee, and the passion begins.

Towards the very end of the prayer, Jesus prays, “O Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you; and these know that you have sent me. I have made known them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Right here, when his hour has arrived, when the commission he and his Father have agreed upon from all eternity is about to reach its fulfillment in the Cross, he addresses his Father as righteous. The Hebrew word behind this word signifies ‘right conduct in faithfulness’. Both Father and Son will go forward to the Cross exercising right conduct in faithfulness. They are true to another, trust one another completely; each faithfully follows through on their arranged plan to bring the world back to God through the Cross and resurrection. A closely related term signifies ‘right which comes into effect as salvation’, and often occurs in contexts of care for the poor and oppressed. According to Gerhard von Rad, it contains a sense of urgency, it expresses the right which must at all costs be put into force on earth, the right that also has the power with God to have its way. In their mutual love, the Father and the Son have bound themselves to one another to bring about this righteousness on earth despite all human resistance and obstacles. Here is the obedience that Jesus must live at its most demanding and unyielding. In our parable, God’s righteousness convicts envy and defends his right to dispense his grace as he sees fit.

We can fill out this righteousness if we add another term which Jesus uses frequently in this prayer -  ‘glory’. Jesus willingly undergoes this obedient self-surrender to the way of the Cross so that he may glorify the Father, that is, honor the Father and make him known. “Father, he prays, the hour has come, glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” In this we see the whole of the motivation of Jesus’ existence, which is to seek only the glory of the Father, which takes the form of carrying out the mission, the commandment or commission the Father has entrusted to him. Totally renouncing his own will, all acting in own power, all speaking in his own authority, for Jesus, everything is ordered around making the Father known. For the sake of the Father’s glory he has become poor. And from this poverty he makes the humble request to the Father to glorify him.

On his side, the Father has put all of his authority and power behind glorifying the Son, honoring him and making him known. Here, in the unreserved self-emptying love of the whole of the godhead poured out on him without measure, we find Jesus’ experience of the Father’s freely given superabundant grace which he then bestows on his creatures.

When we turn from the book of the experience of Jesus to the book of our own experience, we see a great and unbreachable chasm arise between them and may cry out like St. Bernard and St. Paul, “O God, who is like you!” Having gazed upon the justice and glory of trinitarian love we call out for God’s mercy and are filled with hope. For this radiant love is not something they have held on to for themselves but has been handed on to the Church through the Spirit, that through the gift of the Spirit we may become one spirit with them. Just as the Father and the Son have glorified one another by establishing the divine righteousness on earth in the whole of creation, so do they wish to glorify one another now by rooting out all evil from our souls, each striving to make of ourselves a pure gift to the other, from Son to Father and from Father to Son, whole and fully restored.

It is from this position of humble self-awareness within the vision of God’s goodness that the folly of a vice like envy becomes apparent. How foolish to alienate ourselves from God and our neighbor on account of the gifts God has given to another. Forgetting ourselves, we can begin the walk back with God toward union with him and our brother. We know, and above all God knows, that this is a process. Freedom does not come in an instant.  The thing is, to be open to receive God’s offer of his mercy, and to take up his commandment to love one another as he has loved us, to be prepared to bend down and wash our brother’s feet, and to undergo the Cross on his behalf. We may still find ourselves victims of envy and other vices, but they weaken their hold on us, because our attention is elsewhere, someone else has a hold on us, someone else who has already conquered our sin and drawn us into his life.  

Photograph by Brother Brian. Today's homily by Father Timothy.