The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Today’s Gospel might be used to justify the separation of Church and State, or to divide the world into secular and sacred realms, or to induce Christians to pay their taxes. But I don’t think that Jesus is principally commenting on either economic or political issues as such. Rather, his meaning is deeply theological and says something about the world, about humanity, and our place in it. Only then might we derive political or economic principles.
The key sentence is this: “Render to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). What is it that belongs to God? The psalmist says: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps 24:1). So, whereas Caesar is emperor of all the lands he has conquered and governs, the true Lord is God; all the earth and everything in it is his. So, even if tribute in the form of taxes is paid to Caesar, nevertheless, Caesar himself owes tribute to God; he owes him worship.
And again, another psalm says: “Know that the Lord is God! It is he who made us, and we are his” (Ps 99:3); we belong to God. Hence, humanity is made in God’s image and likeness. As the coin bears the “likeness” of Caesar, so the human person bears the likeness of God, the true Caesar. Implicit in this, I think, is a challenge to the idea that Caesar is divine, and that he is overlord. But in fact, every human person bears the divine imprint, and we are thus all equal in God’s sight whatever our position or wealth or status; everybody is called to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. Thus the Lord says in Isaiah: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isa 45:5).
Hence, there is a hint of irony in the Gospel. The Pharisees and Herodians mock and flatter Jesus when they say that he “does not regard the position of men”. Now, Jesus draws attention to the fact that this is true of God: He, the Maker of us all does not regard our position. Hence, the Pharisees and Herodians had unknowingly spoken truly of Christ and indicated that Jesus is, in fact, Lord and God.
Indeed, Jesus is the true Caesar, heralded by angels as the Prince of Peace at his birth, and so Mankind is to be stamped by his grace so that we bear his likeness. We Christians are inscribed with a cross at our baptism so that we bear the name of Christ, and God’s grace is given to us in baptism to refashion us in the image of Christ, to make us partakers in his divine nature. Thus we are made “sons of God”. Traditionally, kings and rulers like Caesar are called ‘Son of God’, but now through baptism all humanity can become sons of God; kings; made divine. You and I, therefore, are made Caesar because we worship and are graced by the true Caesar, Jesus Christ.
But what does Jesus mean when he says, “Render… to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt 22:21)? Yes, it suggests that we should pay our lawful taxes and obey civil authorities. St Paul thus says “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1). But at the same time he still remembers the proper order of things, which is that earthly authorities are themselves subject to God “for there is no authority except from God”.
However, what is it that is rendered to Caesar in the Gospel?
The great canticle or hymn with which St Paul opens his letter to the Ephesians is sung once a week in the Liturgy, in Vespers. It is very theologically rich, and it presents God’s plan of salvation, a “mystery” (Eph 1:9) that is revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and which it is the duty and privilege of the Church to reveal to all peoples in every generation.
The essence of this mystery is that Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man, unites a universe divided by sin. Whereas the Devil and sin scatters and breaks apart, Jesus unites and gathers together “all things in him[self], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). Hence, unity among peoples, nations, races is a mark of God’s activity and grace. It is to be seen principally in Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, united in one faith and sharing one Eucharist in the one Spirit.
The goal of God’s plan, therefore, is to bring about unity among his creatures, and he does this through his Church in which many members become one body in Christ. The way in which this is accomplished is, as Paul says, through “the riches of [God’s] grace which he [has] lavished upon us” (Eph 1:7f). We are given this grace ordinarily through baptism. It is sometimes called sanctifying grace because it makes us holy, makes us like Christ, the Holy One of God. When we receive sanctifying grace, God is present as divine love, Charity, dwelling in our souls. And if we choose to co-operate with grace so that we choose to love as God loves and love what he loves, then we become more and more like Christ who is Charity made flesh. Thus we say that sanctifying grace makes us holy by refashioning Man in the image and likeness of Christ the Son until we too, in our flesh, show forth the sacrificial love of God, and are like him.
This, then, is how we are united to God in love. So, as St Paul put it, God “destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5). For Charity in our soul makes us like Charity himself, Jesus Christ. Our main work as Christians, therefore, is to grow to love more and more like Jesus does; learn to choose the good things that he commands; will what God wills and so be “holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). This life-long process, in co-operation with sanctifiying grace, is what we call sanctification.
What can disrupt and destroy this process of sanctification? Mortal sin. For, as the name implies, certain serious sins, deliberately committed, are so contrary to divine love and to God’s vision of love which he wants to teach us, that they kill Charity in our souls. Without Charity, our union with God is lost; sanctifying grace also goes, and there can be no salvation, no eternal life without God.
Hence, we need once more, as St Paul says, “redemption through [Christ’s] blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us” (Eph 1:7f). And this is precisely what happens when we go to Confession. For then we stand again under Christ’s Cross and we are washed in his blood, we receive God’s forgiveness, and so, we are given sanctifying grace once more. Through Christ’s great act of divine love on the Cross, Charity, his divine love, once more is given to us, poured into our hearts, and can work in our souls to shape us and transform us until our whole being, body and soul, learns to love like Jesus loves: sacrificially. So, if we co-operate with sanctifying grace, we will be made holy precisely because we learn to love like the Crucified One, we love and desire what Jesus does instead of what we used to. Thus we heard yesterday in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians these striking words: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
This, then, is the mystery of God’s plan of salvation, this is what we are called to, chosen “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4): that Man should learn Charity in co-operation with grace and so become like Jesus Christ, become one with God. Thus we can live for ever; thus we have limitless bliss; thus we are, as Paul says: “blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3).
St Paul uses this beautiful phrase today: “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). This means that what we believe about Christ and what God has done for sinful humanity through Christ affects what we do, how we behave. Notice that right belief comes first so that our minds are formed and our intellects are focussed on the truth. Consequently, our wills are motivated by right thinking to do the right things, namely, to love as God first loved us. Hence St James also says: “I by my works will show you my faith” (Jas 2:18).
So, to love as God loves means to do certain works, good works. For love is not realized through feelings but through actions. Love for God, then, is shown by doing concrete things for God, whether regular prayer and Mass-going, or serving the homeless and poor, or caring for a sick and elderly person in our community. Each of these good works, if motivated by faith, is thus an expression of love for Jesus Christ. It is, as St Paul says, “faith working through love”. Thus, when Blessed Teresa of Kolkata speaks of serving the poor she says that it is Christ in the “distressing disguise of the poor” whom she serves. When we go out on the streets or to the Mercy Convent to feed the homeless, or even in our ordinary daily encounters with other people, it is Jesus whom we seek and interact with. This is how faith is worked out through love: we see Christ in others and we love him in and through them, in co-operation with God’s grace. Hence, we prayed in the Collect today that God’s grace will “make us always determined to carry out good works”.
The other side of faith motivating our actions is that we will avoid those acts which faith tells us displeases God. Thus Jesus says: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (Jn 14:21). My sins, therefore, reflect how poorly I love God: they are acts which I freely choose to do that are contrary to God’s loving commandments, contrary to God’s wisdom and desire for my truest human flourishing and genuine freedom. Every sin, therefore, implies a lack of faith in God’s Word and a corresponding lack of love for Christ and his commandments. In a contrary manner to good works, sinful acts also show “faith working through love” but they reveal faith in one’s own limited ideas of the good, in what the Media and popular opinion tell us is good, and they reveal a love of self or pleasure or convenience or some lesser good over and above God who is our greatest Good.
This question of what motivates our actions is also at the heart of today’s Gospel. The Pharisees are critcized because their actions, whether of alms-giving or service, are not motivated by genuine love of God and neighbour but by love of self or their status or social conventions. But God’s grace is given to us to free us from these constraints of our culture and of the common mindset (cf Gal 5:1) so that we can love what Jesus Christ loves, and do the good works he commands us. The saint, therefore, as Chesterton says, is “a medicine because he is an antidote” to the poisons of his age. We Christians are called to heal our age, and we do it through our right thinking and our right doing, through orthodox “faith working through [authentic] love”.
One of my favourite lines of Shakespeare comes from Julius Cæsar: “Let me have men about me that are fat”! And this seems to be what God wants too: he prepares “a feast of fat things” and rich wines (cf Isa 25:6), and if we attend God’s marriage feast (cf Lk 22:2) we would become fat things! Perhaps those who refused to go were health conscious – aren’t we always told to not indulge in rich and fatty foods? But in fact if we’re truly conscious of our health and well-being – salus in Latin and hence our salvation – then we would feast on God’s banquet of fat things, that is to say, his grace.
For we have become emaciated by sin; we waste away and have no strength, and so we need to be fattened up on grace, to be strengthened and enlivened with good wine. Hence God calls us up to the mountain of the Lord of hosts (cf Isa 25:6), to the ‘high place’ that is the Altar, and to feast from this sacred table on the Eucharist. By feeding on the Bread of Life, death is swallowed up for ever (cf Isa 25:8a), and by drinking the Chalice of Salvation, a rich and good wine that brings joy to our hearts, God “wipe[s] away tears from all faces” (Isa 25:8b). Thus, as the prophet Isaiah foretold, when we come to the Eucharist and receive Christ’s Body and Blood we shall say: “Lo, this is our God” (Isa 25:9)! A multitude are called to this feast, “both good and bad” (Lk 22:10) and it is a marriage feast because through the Eucharist Man is wedded to God; we become one Body, one Spirit in Christ.
But what are we to make of the wedding garment, and about few being chosen? Yes, many are called to climb the mountain of the Lord, to be baptised and to eat and drink the Eucharist, to feast on God’s banquet. And those who are open to God’s grace and respond to it, who co-operate with it, become fat things. Those who are fattened on God’s grace thus change and are transformed. They become larger people, magnanimous, that is, large-souled, and their hearts expand in love to make room for others. And so they need to change into looser fitting robes, into their wedding garments – just consider how voluminous many wedding dresses are!
However, not everyone who comes to the banquet gets fat. It’s as though some suffer from a kind of spiritual bulimia, gorging on fat things and rich wine and then throwing up. So, they receive the sacraments but do not seem to benefit from them; they remain relatively unchanged. They are still wasted by sin and so, I suppose, are too thin to put on their wedding garments. Why is this?
The sacraments are not magic. God will not force our will. And so we may get baptised and confirmed, we may go to Mass and receive Holy Communion, and we might even go to Confession. But the sacraments benefit us to the extent that we are well-disposed to receive God’s graces. For the sacraments to be fruitful in our lives, and so, to make us fat, we need to approach them with faith, to be in a state of grace, and to receive them with the right intention. It’s as though we need a certain enzyme to unlock the energy in the food we eat. So, we need the right dispositions to unlock its power in us, to remove any obstacles to God’s grace such as attachments to sin or doubt in God’s Word or hatred for our neighbour. The more well-disposed we are, that is to say, the greater our faith, hope, and love when we receive the sacraments, then the more we can be helped and transformed by the sacraments; we become fat on God’s grace and become fat things!
For if God were to say: “Let me have men and women about me that are fat”, he means he wills to be surrounded by saints. Thus he prepares a feast of fat things for you and me; he supplies every need of ours from his riches (cf Phil 4:19); he gives us grace upon grace so that we can become saints. So, today’s Gospel is a check-up for the health conscious, that is, the salvation conscious: Are you getting fat enough?
This morning the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, a gathering of some 250 bishops joined by some religious and married laity, have begun their meetings in Rome. The bishops have come together to pray, listen, reflect and discuss; to find ways to support, strengthen and encourage the Christian family, to consider the challenges facing family life today, and so to better present and live out Christ’s vision of the family to the world. So, the Holy Father said in the Synod’s Opening Mass yesterday: “the Lord is asking us [bishops] to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of [God’s] loving plan for humanity”.
All of us know that families and married life are places of great beauty, love and care. But we also know that they are places where we can be deeply wounded. This is part of the sinful human condition and this occurs whenever we relate with one another. The role of God in all this is bind up our wounds and to teach us to love one another as neighbours, as Christ does. So today’s Gospel shows us the compassion and mercy that is essential in our dealings with one another, even as God had bent down in compassion and mercy through the Incarnation of his Son in order to bind up our wounds and heal us of sin and enmity.
The family plays a central role in God’s vision of love because it is here that we encounter our first neighbour – our parents, our brothers and sisters, our spouse. Do we pass by without daring or wanting to notice their wounds, or do we love them enough to take the risk of loving and healing them? Every act of love which opens us up to another person makes us vulnerable and so involves a risk. This is why families can be such painful places. And yet, it is in the risk of loving that we become like Christ, and it is he who, ultimately, can and will heal our vulnerabilities, the wounds we inflict on one another. Hence, every marriage and family must have God who is Love at its heart for he is the Creator and Doctor of the human heart.
Let us love him above all for it is the love of God which grounds and makes possible our love for our neighbour, for our spouses and families. It is he who softens the hardness of our hearts (cf Mt 19:8) so that we can notice our neighbour within our families and marriages and see the hurt they suffer – oftentimes because of our own carelessness and sinfulness – and so, turn to nurse them, to seek forgiveness, and to love them as tenderly as Christ the divine Physician does.
The role of the Church, then, is to help and support married couples and families so that they can learn to forgive and love one another as God has forgiven us and loved us in Christ. The Church is also to be that Inn of Healing wherein the man or woman, wounded by other people (especially in our families) can be healed and recover, and so, continue on his or her journey to heaven. But whatever way the Church does this, whatever proposal is offered to meet the challenges facing families today, whatever is done to support marriages, it has to be true to the Gospel and Christ’s teachings as St Paul says to the Galatians. Only if we remain focussed on Christ, the Good Samaritan, and do as he teaches do we find compassion and true mercy that heals and lifts up. Hence St Paul warns: “there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you let him be accursed… again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed”(Gal 1:8-9).
These words of Scripture, too, must surely be on the minds of our bishops as they gather for the Synod in Rome today. Mercy must be faithful to the truth of the Gospel, to the mind and vision of Christ for the family – there is no other Gospel. So, let us pray for our bishops that, as we said in the Collect, they may “know what is pleasing to [God] and then pursue it with all their strength” (Mass for a Synod).
Providence has arranged that today’s feast follows on from the feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux so that today’s proper Gospel both reflects on her life and virtues as well as teaches us about our Guardian Angels.
I suggested yesterday that St Thérése’s spirituality of the little way, of spiritual childhood taught us to look at the Holy Face of Jesus with confidence, hope, and trust; it is by looking at Christ that we advance in Christian virtue. Today’s feast reminds of the other side of the glance of love that we direct towards God, which is that even before we are born, God our Father looks at us with love and Providential care. Hence in today’s feast we focus on God’s look of love upon us.
Many people, sadly, think of God as somekind of policeman or Big Brother or CCTV constantly watching us to catch us out; to restrict our freedom to do whatever we want; waiting to punish us. But this idea of God couldn’t be more wrong.
As Cardinal Hume once said, God watches us always because he loves us so much that he can’t take his eyes off us. And so, as Exodus says, God “[sends] an angel before [us], to guard [us] on the way and to bring [us] to the place which [he has] prepared” (23:20). And the place which God our Father has prepared for us, his children through baptism, is that we should be with him in heaven, united to him in love. So, as St Thomas says: “the guardianship of angels belongs to the execution of Divine providence concerning men” for God provides us with the grace and help we need for our salvation. God does all he can, without violating our free will, that we might be protected and defended from sin and the lies of the Devil. Thus he watches over us with love, and he gives each of us a guardian angel to help us – our angels prompt us to good works, and to grow in virtue as the children of God that we’re called to be.
So, as St Thérèse reminded us yesterday, let us look to God and seek his loving Holy Face. The angels who constantly behold God’s glory are here to turn our gaze to Christ when we should look away, when we’re distracted and seduced by so many other lesser goods. They direct us back to Jesus, to be held in God’s look of love so that, at last, when we are “fully mature in Christ” (Col 1:28), we shall see God face to face in heaven.
Therefore, let us be attuned and sensitive to their angelic inspirations through a prayerful reflection on what we do, let us thank them today and everyday for their help, and let us praise God for his Provident love and care for us, his poor little children.
In August this year I joined some 12,000 Catholic scouts and guides who, over the course of a week, walked on short pilgrimages to the small town of Lisieux where a huge domed basilica stands on a hill overlooking the town. But the grandiose scale of this Shrine, which is necessary because of the hundreds of thousands who flock there every year, is juxtaposed with the central virtue of its Saint. As the verse from St Matthew’s Gospel that is carved on the basilica’s facade explains: “For whoever humbles herself will be exalted” (Mt 23:12). And then, in the tympanum over the central doors, there is a figure of Christ with a child, and this verse: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:4). For today’s saint modelled her life on the Child Jesus, and so strived for a humble and simple child-like love for God.
At the age of just 15 in 1887, Thérèse Martin who was born of saintly parents, was given special permission by the Pope to enter the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux. On becoming a nun, she took as her religious name, Thèrése of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. And these two appellations indicate the core of her spirituality. She described her life as a “little way of spiritual childhood” in which she looked with child-like confidence at the loving and tender face of God in Jesus Christ.
In today’s Gospel, discipleship of Christ and living in the joy of the Kingdom means looking towards him who always looks on us with kindness, mercy and love. St Thérèse teaches us to focus on the Holy Face of Jesus and so to love him. As she says: “We have merely to love Him, without looking at ourselves, without examining our faults too much.” So, in the Gospel, the one who “looks back” (Lk 9:62) is the disciple who looks back on his past sins, on his faults and weaknesses, and he is scared by the demands of discipleship; the hard work of plowing over our old lives so that new shoots of a new life in Christ can spring up.
But St Thérèse teaches us to take courage in Christ. It is the courage of a child who is learning to walk in the ways of the new Christian life, learning to live the life of grace. And she says we should not look back on our sinfulness with anxiety but look up to the Holy Face of our Saviour who is here to help us. But we do need to keep looking to him, and keep trying, keep willing to love him and to live as a child of God. Often we stop trying because our pride is wounded, and we cannot stand to be reminded of our failures and weaknesses which is why we need the humility of a child, and confidence in God’s merciful love.
A charming example from St Thérèse’s writing explains this. She says: “Think of a little child that is learning to stand but does not yet know how to walk. In his desire to reach the top of the stairs to find his mother, he lifts his little foot to climb the first stair. It is all in vain, and at each renewed effort he falls. Well, be this little child: through the practice of all the virtues, always lift your little foot to mount the staircase of holiness, but do not imagine that you will be able to go up even the first step! No, but the good God does not demand more from you than good will. From the top of the stairs, He looks at you with love. Soon, won over by your useless efforts, He will come down Himself and, taking you in His arms, He will carry you up… But if you stop lifting your little foot, He will leave you a long time on the ground.”
So today, let us be encouraged on our pilgrimage of Life that takes us not to a domed basilica in a Normandy town but to the high halls of Heaven. Along this journey, let us focus on Christ’s Holy Face. Let us gaze at him with love and allow him to look at us with love during Adoration of the Eucharist after this Mass. And let us also go to Confession for through this Sacrament we take another step up the staircase of holiness, and God comes to lift us up. With every step we take, may St Thérèse accompany us and teach us her little way.
'Yes' or 'No'. This has been the great decision, and now we have to live with the consequences of that decision. 'Yes' or 'No'. The signs and symbols proclaiming one or the other are still visible all over our city. 'Yes' or 'No'. Many promises have been made, many words exchanged, but all talk is worthless if there is 'No' concrete change, 'No' genuine change of mindset.
You might think that I refer to the Scottish Referendum and its outcome. But I don’t. I speak about today’s Gospel.
The Father asks his sons to go into the vineyard: ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; will he go or not? One says ‘No’, “I will not”, and the other says ‘Yes’. Each day we, too, are faced with the great decision. Do we say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to God our Father’s call? He calls us to work in the vineyard, that is, to till the soil of our hearts so that it is humbled and ready to serve God, to be fruitful through his grace. Do we obey his call, a call that is repeated with every moral decision we make? ‘Yes’ or ‘No’?
We are the signs that proclaim our great decision, a ‘Yes’ to Christ made in Baptism and again in Confirmation, and the symbol we take up Sunday after Sunday is the Creed, called in Latin the symbolum because its words, which we proclaim together as one community, are the symbol of our faith. And so we Christians become signs in our city, our communities and societies that proclaim our ‘Yes’ to Jesus Christ; a ‘Yes’ to the Faith that unites us to Our Lady and the Apostles and Saints and their ‘Yes’. As a further sign, some of us will wear a cross or crucifix, others carry a Rosary, or perhaps something even more visible like a habit. Others will say grace before meals, offer to pray for a friend, or be seen going to and from church. You and I are thus signs of our ‘Yes’ to the Father. But do our lives, our ways of thinking and behaving, also say ‘Yes’? Or are we like the son who says ‘Yes’ but does not go into the vineyard, does not obey the Father’s will and live according to Christ’s teachings?
'Yes' or 'No'? Do we carry on thinking and living in a way that is indistinguishable from those around us who are not Christians? Do we see the world and our relationships transformed in the light of Christ's truth, or do we dream of Christ and his infallible teachings being transformed and made relevant by the world and its mindset? One son in today's parable first says 'No' then repents afterwards and goes to work in the vineyard. And the Greek word translated as 'repent' is metamelomai, which means a change of mind leading to appropriate action. We are encouraged, then, to be docile to God’s grace which opens our minds to God’s ways, and gives us the strength to thus work in God’s service with integrity of heart and mind. Hence St Paul encourages the Philippians to be “of one mind” (Phil 2:2), and this is the mind of Christ, who was humble in his obedience to the Father even to dying on the Cross.
We Christians, then, are called to imitate Christ’s humility, and so, to be obedient to the Father’s will and to Christ’s commandments. As Jesus says: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). We often talk about God’s love, but now God talks about love, and what he wants is our obedience to his Word, to do the Father’s will. Genuine love like this, then, is demanding and will require changes to the way we think, see things, and the way we live; changes to the decisions we make and the things we do for work and for pleasure.
Three books of wisdom are attributed to Solomon in the Scriptures. Proverbs, which we had a taste of, contained folk wisdom and the kind of ethical instruction for day-to-day living that can be found among philosophers of the time. Ecclesiastes, which we begin reading today, contains a kind of skeptical worldly wisdom in which life is cyclical and so, ultimately lacking in purpose. The Song of Songs, which is not read enough in the Lectionary, is the third book which looks at divine wisdom, and in particular the union with God through love that is the goal of human life. As such, it offers an answer and a riposte to the pessimism of Ecclesiastes.
It seems to me that Ecclesiastes is most helpfully seen in this light: in relation to the Song of Songs as a portrayal of the futility of life without God who is the rightful goal and end of our existence, a God of love who thus gives our lives meaning and purpose. Or as St Bonaventure thought, Ecclesiastes taught us the futility of earthly things so that we would look to divine things in the Song of Songs. As such, it is puzzling to me that the Lectionary omits the Song of Songs from the current cycle of readings.
And yet, today’s Gospel offers a hint of a refutation to the mindset of Ecclesiastes. Where the Preacher says that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9), Herod’s consternation and his desire to see Jesus comes down to the fact that something new is happening in Christ. Jesus, who is God breaking into human history re-creates the cosmos through his resurrection. And Herod and his advisers unwittingly point to this through their speculation. Herod does not believe that John has risen from the dead, and he is right. The irony is that the very person he longs to see will be the One who does indeed rise from the dead, and in doing so, the Risen Lord renews creation. As he says in the book of the Apocalypse: “Behold, I make all things new” (Apoc 21:5)
So, Christ brings new meaning to creation, to life and death, and he gives it a goal, for he is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Apoc 22:13). As such, history is not futile and cyclical as Ecclesiastes makes it out to be, but is, in fact guided by Providence and moves towards Christ as the goal. For Christ reveals that all is created in love, sustained by love, and perfected in love, that is, in intimate union with God as the Song of Songs says. Thus the Preacher of Ecclesiastes speaks of the sun rising and setting mechanically – a world view not uncommon in our day – but a Christian, like Dante, can speak of God as “the Love that moves the sun and other stars”.
And this worldview, this purposive vision, is the wisdom that we have to offer to our contemporaries. We are taught by Christ who is Wisdom itself, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
What would you rather be doing right now? Do we have to come to Mass and fulfill our “Sunday obligation”? Is this work or pleasure? Sometimes we can think of things like going to Mass, or praying, or living the Christian moral life, as the terms of our employment. If we want to be employed as Catholics and receive the payment of heaven that’s due at the end then we have to fulfill the terms of our contract and do our duty; fulfill our obligations. We priests and religious even refer to our set prayers in Church as the ‘Divine Office’ making it sound like praying is our work. But, consider: If you go to visit family and you have to fill in one of those immigration cards and you’re asked for the purpose of your visit, do you tick ‘business’ or ‘leisure’? Or, maybe a more obvious one: If you spend time with your closest friend, is it work or pleasure? So, how we answer the questions I asked right at the beginning say something about how we see God.
Today’s Gospel, however, tells us how God sees us. The householder calls the grumbling labourer, “Friend” (Mt 20:13), and this is how Jesus calls us in St John’s Gospel: “No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15). This beautiful term, “friend” is so eloquent. It speaks of desire for the company of the other, of delight in the other’s person and particular character, of a certain commitment to the good of the other, and of equality without vows or contractual obligations. The word ‘friend’ is born of love rather than obligation. For God has no duty to create us, no obligation to sustain all things in being; he does not owe us life or salvation. All is a gift, freely given and offered to us in love. Thus he calls you and me “Friend”.
Hence this parable of what the kingdom of heaven is like isn’t, in the first place, about the labourers. Rather, as Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a [certain generous] householder” (cf Mt 20:1): it is about God, who he is, and how he acts so that we can see him present and active in creation and in our lives. So, the mystery of the God’s gifts to humanity – the gift of life and the gift of salvation in Christ – is principally about God’s being. Because God is Love, he freely chooses to make us, in some sense, equal to him, firstly by creating us in his image and likeness, endowing Mankind with reason and freedom. Then, through baptism and the sacraments, God gives us grace which elevates and perfects our human nature so that we become like Christ. Thus we are made capable of genuine friendship, which entails a certain ‘equality’, with God. This, then, is the generosity of God which is extended to all human beings.
So, while the grumbling labourers saw the householder as unjust in making “them equal to us” (Mt 20:12), this parable actually reveals the central mystery of the Christian faith, which is that God has unjustly made Man equal to him. What I mean by calling this ‘unjust’ is that God has not given sinful humanity what we rightly deserve in justice. For as St Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). But instead, God has offered us eternal life. This is the wage, if you like, of today’s parable, the one denarius – a day’s wage in the ancient world – that is offered to all at the close of the Day, that is, at the end of one’s earthly life. And God offers us eternal life, friendship with him, not because we deserve it but because he loves us. Thus he has freely forgiven us, and been generous, and merciful, and lavish with his compassion, giving us, as St John says, “grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). As C. S. Lewis says: “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”