Must Thou Give Me Sour Looks?
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Lessons from the primary dominica, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Isaiah 55: 6-9.
• Psalm 145: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18.
• Philippians 1: 20-24, 27.
• Matthew 20: 1-16.
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Lessons from the dominica, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Ephesians 3: 13-21.
• Psalm 101: 16-17.
• Luke 14: 1-11.
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (the First after the Holy Cross); the Feast of the Holy Martyr, First Among Women & Equal to the Apostles Thecla; and, the Synaxis of the Holy Fathers of the Pecherskaya Lavra.*
Lessons from the pentecostarion, according to the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine Rite:
• II Corinthians 6: 1-10.
• Luke 5: 1-11.**
8:42 AM 9/24/2017 — Those of you who attend Holy Mass with us every Sunday here at the Shrine can probably guess what it is I'm going to say to you based on the Gospel lesson we just heard. The essential theme of Our Lord's parable about the laborers who work for different periods of time yet are all paid the same wage is identical to that of a very similar parable we heard Our Lord tell us back in July. That was the parable of the Wheat and Tares, in which both wheat and weeds are allowed to grow side by side, without being sorted out until after the harvest. The difficult lesson we took away from that day was how our purely human notions of justice and fairness just don't mean squat to Our Blessed Lord. For Him, justice doesn't come until the Final Judgment at the end of all things; and, so long as we keep looking for the good to be rewarded and the evil to the punished here in this life, we're going to remain confused and frustrated. The test I offered to help us determine to what extent we were infected with an anti-Gospel notion of human justice was to consider how many times we've ever caught ourselves thinking: “I've lived a good life; why is God letting this happen to me?”
It's the perennial question of God's permissive will: God doesn't directly desire our suffering, but he does allow us to suffer from time to time, and the reason may be many and varied. It may be to offer us an opportunity to be cleansed of some of the punishment due to our own sins; it may be to make an act of reparation for some atrocity committed by ourselves or others in our past; and, as we saw in the lives of the some of the saints whose feasts we were celebrating that time of year, it may be as a form of purification in preparation for some work God has in store for us in the future. We just don't know, and will not know on this side of the grave. And the cure for the despair that tempts us during these times of trial is the Virtue of Hope, which we called the “forgotten virtue”; forgotten because embracing the Virtue of Hope requires us to completely abandon the notion that, if we do God's will and live a good life, he will take care of us in the here and now, when the reality is that we live the Gospel of Jesus Christ not to obtain peace of mind and contentment here on earth, but to become worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
That was why I suggested to you that what's really at issue here is a crisis of faith. We look to see good rewarded and evil punished before our eyes because, deep down inside, we doubt the truth of the Resurrection, we doubt the realities of heaven and hell. We give lip service to the True Faith: when we recite the Creed we always end by saying, “…I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”; but, do we really? Because if we did, we would never say to ourselves, “I've lived a good life; why is God letting this happen to me?”
In many respects, today's Gospel lesson is an even more uncomfortable one. The parables told by our Lord are, of course, fictional stories; the people he describes in them never existed; they are stories Our Lord tells to make a point. They're not meant by Our Lord to be realistic; they're meant to be moral lessons; and, the story he tells us today is so direct and so harsh in it's absolutism, that we can only presume Our Lord's intent is to shock us, which he does. A whole bunch of people go to work for a man; some of them work all day in the hot sun, and others, hired at the last moment, work no more than an hour or so; yet, at the end of the day, they all get paid the same. How is that fair? It isn't. It's not supposed to be. “Fair” is a quality that we've invented; it has nothing to do with the Gospel.
A lot of people make the mistake—or, rather the rationalization—of focusing exclusively on the landowner's punchline at the end of the parable: …an oculus tuus nequam est, quia ego bonus sum? The translation we have here, in the Roman Missal, is boilerplate; both the Greek*** and the Latin are much more colorful, and Msgr. Knox gives us an exact translation: “Must thou give me sour looks, because I am generous?” (Matt. 20: 15 Knox). And so, those uncomfortable with the actual point of Our Lord's parable find an easy way to skirt the issue by using that last line to dilute Our Lord's message to one of the necessity of being generous, which fits in with the program of the moderns of distilling the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ to a mere program of social justice: the whole point of Christianity is loving one another and being kind to one another and caring for the poor and the needy and running soup kitchens and blood drives and having our children save their nickles and dimes during Lent to feed the hungry and—according to their interpretation of today's Gospel lesson—promoting the ethics of justice and equality in society.
But the landowner in the parable is not the villain; he's the hero, in much the same way that the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the hero in spite of the fact that his treatment of his elder son is also very unfair. We can try, as many do, to pull one or two lines from a Gospel lesson and use that to try and make the passage be about what we've already decided we want it to be about, as in the case of today's Gospel in which the last line is used to make the whole lesson nothing more than an exhortation to be generous. Do that enough, and the Gospel is reduced to nothing more than a self-help book that could have been written by Doctor Phil; indeed, for many Christians—even for many Catholics—that's all it is: Jesus teaches us how to be nice to each other … period.
The point of our Lord's parable is not that it's important to be generous with our money; the point is that how God chooses to deal with us as individuals has no relationship to how he chooses to deal with someone else, which is none of our business. Forgive me for pointing it out, but there is a Commandment about envy. We typically interpret it in terms of coveting our neighbor's material goods, but it applies to our neighbor's relationship to God as well. When we presume that God's treatment of us is unfair because we perceive that he's treated someone else differently, we've “Doctor Philled” the Gospel. We focus so much on our membership in the community of the Church, that we often forget that our relationship to Christ is a deeply personal one. The real punchline in today's Gospel lesson, if you want one, is the not the line “Are you envious because I am generous?” (20: 15 NAB), but the line “Take what is yours and go” (v. 14 NAB).
The longer I hear confessions as a priest, the more I am convinced that the greatest struggles we face in the interior life are not temptations of the flesh or distractions in our prayer or dark nights wherein our faith is tested; the greatest damage to interior peace and union with Christ come from comparing ourselves to others. That was the problem with the Pharisee in the Temple: “Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like this publican…” (cf. Luke 18: 11). What kind of prayer is that? What would have been worse is if the publican had said, “Lord, why can't you give to me what you've given to the Pharisee?” He can thank God that he didn't say that, since we know that the prayer of the Pharisee was not pleasing to God.
In just a few moments we're going to, once again, recite our Creed, just as we do each and every Sunday; and, once again, when we get to the last line, we will say those words we say so often without thinking: “…I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” The fly in the ointment, of course, is that we can't very well look forward to the world to come so long as our eyes are continually fixed on the world here; so, before we say those words, we should stop to consider whether we actually mean them, because, if we don't really mean them, then we shouldn't be saying them.
* Today is called "The First Sunday after the Holy Cross" because the previous Sunday, "The Sunday after the Exaltation," is considered part of the Postfestive period of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and thus part of the feast itself. Following the feast and postfestive period of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14th through 21st), the Greek Church actually labels these Sundays as “Sundays after the Holy Cross” and begins to number them accordingly, calling today "The First Sunday after the Holy Cross," while the Ruthenian and Russian Churches return to numbering them as "Sundays after Pentecost" (though in some older Ruthenian typicons the Greek custom is observed). The historical context of this custom was the Greek practice of marking the birthday of the Emperor Augustus on September 23rd, which they regarded as the first day of the Church year. It was not until the fall of the empire that the new year observance was moved to Sept. 1st throughout the Churches of the Byzantine Rite.
See the note to yesterday's post for the extraordinary form for information about St. Thecla, and the controversy regarding her designation as a martyr.
** The four Gospels are all read in their entirety in the Byzantine Churches, and the reading of each begins with a great feast. The Gospel of St. John begins with the Feast of Feasts, Pascha, and is read until Pentecost. The Gospel of St. Matthew begins with Pentecost, and is read until the Feast of the Holy Cross, after which the Gospel of St. Luke is read all the way through until the Great Fast; but, because the Divine Liturgy is offered only on Saturday and Sunday in the Great Fast, the left-over passages are read in the last six weeks of the Matthean and Lucan cycles. This is why the Byzantine Churches begin the reading of Luke’s Gospel on the Sunday after the Holy Cross no matter where they are in the cycle of "Sundays after Pentecost." The Epistles, on the other hand, are read continuously without any adjustment, creating a discrepancy between Epistle and Gospel. This year, there is a discrepancy of two weeks until Dec. 28th. In the Byzantine Churches, this is commonly called "the Lucan Jump." Thus, today, the Epistle sung is the one for the Sixteenth Sunday, and the Gospel the one ordinary sung on the Eighteenth Sunday.
*** “…ἢ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι….”