1990 Sept 23 – 25th Sun Ord Time (Prison Writings)
25th Sun in Ord Time Cycle A
Phil. 1:20 20-27
Matt. 20: 1-16
“Seek the Lord While the Lord May Be Found” IS 55:6
Chapter 55 brings second Isaiah to a close. Written towards the end of the Babylonian exile, it is filled with hopeful passages reviewing many of the themes covered in the previous chapters. This week’s verse can be divided into two parts. In the first the prophet speaks (v.v.6–7) and in the second Gods speaks (vv 8-9). The prophet calls for conversion. “Seek the Lord” he says, “forsake your wicked ways.” Yet in the second part God tells us that God’s ways are as far from our ways as “the heavens are above the earth.” At first glance there seems to be no connection between the two. The prophet says God is near: God says God is infinitely far away. So here is the connection?
“Turn to the Lord for Mercy; To Our God, Who is Generous in Forgiving “IS 55:7:
The connection between we finite human beings and the infinite life of God is God’s generous and forgiving Spirit. It is God’s mercy that prompts the prophet to tell the wicked to seek the Lord. While God’s mercy is available the transcended God is accessible and we know in Christ, the connection between God and us is made permanent and inseparable. Yet despite the intimate relationship between God and us, God’s ways are still beyond our comprehension. Back in my seminary days this was a good thing to be reminded of. Good theologians knew that theology is never our intellect seeking faith because we cannot think our way to God. Theology at its best is always faith-seeking reason. In this sense, every philosophical base, every theological assertion and every dogmatic statement is limited. At best they can point us in the right direction, help us frame the truths we live by but never capture them or control them.
These verses from the book of Isaiah serve as a good introduction to this weeks Gospel and a parable difficult to understand.
“Thus The Last Shall be First and the First Shall be Last” Mt. 20:16
This weeks Gospel is the first of a series of four gospels that feature parables about vineyards. All of these parables appear towards the end of Matthews Gospel as Jesus and his disciples head up to Jerusalem for the final confrontation. In the Old Testament the vineyard grew from a symbol of the fruitful land God had promised and given to the chosen people to a symbol of Israel in crisis and under judgment. This will also be apparent in the next four Sundays of parables along with a common theme of reverse expectations.
This week’s parable of the vineyard workers begins the series. It is one of the most difficult parables to explain, the reason being its blatantly unfair. An owner of a vineyard hires a group of workers at the beginning of the day on an agreed amount of pay. It is a fair wage, the going rate for a full days work. Later on in the morning the owner hires a few more workers to work in his vineyard, then at noon a few more, then at mid afternoon a few more and finally in late afternoon with an hour left to work the owner hired a few more workers. At the end of the day the foreman gathered all the workers hired for the day and paid the last ones first and the first ones last. All the workers were paid the same, each worker got the agreed upon days wages. The workers hired at the beginning complained. How could the owner pay those who did an hours work the same as he paid those who worked the whole day? This parable drives the working guy crazy. It’s blatantly unfair! How could this story reflect the truth of the Kingdom of God?
Parables by definition are supposed to shock our sense of what is right. They are stories drawn from ordinary life told to a particular group of people to make one point, a point that both surprises us and challenges our previously held views of reality. This week’s parable of the vineyard workers follows this definition faithfully. If fairness was the point of the parable, then this week’s parable surely fails.
It is unfair to pay a person who worked one hour the same you would pay another person who worked a whole day. But fairness is not the point of the parable. God’s generosity is the basic point of the parable. Is not God free to act according to the richness of God’s own divine mercy?
What disturbs us most about this parable is what has been called the dark side of God’s mercy, resentment. When God’s mercy is shown to us or someone we love, we are easily overwhelmed with humble gratitude but let God’s mercy touch someone we don’t like, a person who’s sinfulness has hurt us or hurt people we love, well that is another matter especially if God’s mercy comes at little or no cost to the sinner. The classic case of a deathbed conversion is a good example, a person who has lived their life with no concern for God. Imagine this same person was terribly selfish and showed no concern for their fellow human beings, that in their lifetime they caused many good people to suffer. Then all of a sudden, at the last moment before their death, in the presence of a priest, they have a conversion; they confess their sins and go directly to heaven. Is that fair? What about the people who labor year in and year out to avoid sin and live faithfully? This guy on his deathbed gets a full life’s wages for only a few moments work.
No, it’s not fair; it’s not supposed to be fair. It’s how God’s unearned mercy works. Each and every one of us are equally undeserving of it whether we accepted it in our lives at the very beginning and lived full and faithful lives because of it or if we came to accept it at the very end of our lives in a few short lived moments of gratitude. It’s the same agreed heavenly wages and by rights no one should complain.
“Christ will be Exalted Through Me, Whether I Live or Die.” Phil 1:20
I got a surprise visit this past week from Bishop Bullock and Msgr. Beeson. It was great seeing them. It’s a real morale lift to have the ‘boss’ show up and give support when you’re locked up. The primary concern for the Bishop was how well I was holding up. The last time Bishop Bullock and Msgr. Beeson came to visit me in prison I was at the Federal Prison Camp in Marion, Illinois. I was soon to be cut loose. Back then I was slim and trim, had a great tan, was in the best of physical shape and anxious to get back to work. This time is a little different. After more than four months of county jails, I have no tan, I’m not slim or trim, I’m not in top physical shape and I look worn from the confinement Yet my spirit is strong and it was good to give the Bishop a full accounting of my time served. I am grateful and thankful for the Bishop. He gives generously of his time and his person to me. He has my best interest at heart. I’ve challenged him so much; it was good to be reminded that we have a good friendship, too.
I told the Bishop that my jail time has not dissuaded me from my deep conviction for the need for continued non-violent resistance to nuclear weapons and war. If anything this time served has deepened in me a strong desire to continue my journey with the resistance church. Of course, this brought up the whole issue of where I can best put my energies and gifts to the service of the Church, in jail or out?
Interestingly enough St. Paul dealt with this same issue for himself in his letter to the Philippians. The Philippians were Paul’s favorite community. His letter to them was the most personal of all his letters sharing more about himself and his inner feelings to them than any other community. He makes a point of thanking the Philippians for their past generosity towards him. They must have come to his personal aid on several occasions. The letter is written while Paul is in Jail. Despite his unfortunate situation, he is most optimistic. Paul acknowledged that his being locked up prevented him from his main ministry of itinerant preaching, something he did very well and meant so much for the early church. He believed he was actually advancing the Gospel while in jail because the notoriety his imprisonment brought empowered others to more boldly proclaim the Lord. He also found in Jail new opportunities to witness the Gospel to people who would otherwise not have been exposed. (Phil. 1:12-14). I can attest to that given the opportunities I have had to bear witness to my beliefs with the men I find myself locked up with.
What impresses me most about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is his unrestrained optimism. Even in his ‘locked up’ condition Paul is unabashedly optimistic. Where does Paul’s optimism come from?
Paul’s optimism rests on his bottom line faith perspective. For Paul to embrace a faith in Jesus Christ is to come to an ultimate resolution about the most important issue in the human experience, the issue of life over death. In Christ we are assured eternal life. Death has no hold on us in Christ. With this ultimate concern resolved, all other concerns become secondary. Paul sounds almost flippant in this weeks second reading from Philippians about his own death, yet for Paul, it matters little if he lives or dies for he has already been assured his eternal reward in Christ.
St. Paul is a hard act to follow. I cannot claim the same degree of optimism. I do believe the same bottom line faith perspective. I just don’t have St. Paul’s inner confidence. I have a long way to go in my spiritual journey to even approach St. Paul’s self-confidence. However, I do know asking the question of where I can best use my energies and gifts, in jail or out is the wrong initial question to be asking. The primary question is how faithful I am to the truths the Lord has given me to follow. If I remain faithful to these truths the “in jail or not in jail” issue will take care of itself.
90 10 23 – Me and My Church
My recent visit from Bishop Bullock brought to my mind how much my Catholic faith and the Institutional Church have abundantly blessed me. I owe the church a great deal. It was within the catholic experience that I received the gift of Faith. It is the tradition of my mothers and fathers faith, handed down t me through a loving and caring family. My formal introduction to the Church came through the parish life at St. Anthony’s parish community in Des Moines. Twelve years of Catholic education gave me a living understanding of the tradition. Many, many people along the way, especially priests, sisters and teachers helped me develop and grow in my Catholic tradition and faith.
The Catholic tradition is so rich and full. Its sacraments and liturgies are its greatest assets. It is truly a world wide multicultural Church with a history and roots that go all the way back to the first Apostles. Its theological thought and spirituality is the most extensive and inclusive of all the traditions. There is nothing in any other Christian tradition that cannot be found in the Catholic tradition. Its living links to faith communities and the Saints of the past: the Mystical Body of Christ is its greatest treasure. In the Catholic tradition I feel I am part of the main trunk of the tree of Faith started by Christ. It has been the greatest joy of my life to be a priest in the service of this Church. I am thoroughly committed to my Catholic tradition. It is family to me. I would never have it any other way.
I know I have challenged particular aspects of the structure of the church, its all male hierarchy and its acceptance of certain forms of violence. I have described the Institutional Church as being “dysfunctional”, “retarded” and “sexist”. Despite these harsh descriptions I believe the Holy Spirit lives and works through the Institutional Church, human flaws and all, from the Pope on down. I readily admit that my criticism of the Church is my own, though shared by many, and that what is taught by the official Church magisterium, –
the Bishops and the Pope are the normative truths of our faith and Church. When I am compelled to disagree I respectfully defer to the Churches official teaching, testing and reviewing my own views against the Churches views. Right or wrong my criticism of the Church is rooted in my love and desire for the Church, to be true to the spirit of Christ. I also know that ultimately what ever my criticism or beliefs might be, what matters is a life well lived in the spirit of Christ. To this end I owe a great deal to the Church for showing me the way.