September 18, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 55:6-9) Reading II (Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a)
Gospel (St. Matthew 20:1-16a)
In the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, God tells us through the prophet that His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways. This is a point that is made eminently clear for us if we simply read the Gospel today. I suspect most of us, reading that Gospel, would probably have the same reaction as the people who were hired at six in the morning, who worked for twelve hours out in the sun, and when it ametime to receive their pay they found that the people who worked for one hour got the exact same pay as they did. They grumbled because they felt like they had gotten ripped off. As we read it, we might have the exact same kind of disposition: “It’s not fair. Why should these people who worked only one hour get the same amount of money?”
Well, you see, we are already looking at things from the wrong perspective. It shows very clearly how our thoughts and our ways are not the same as the Lord’s. The problem that we as human beings suffer from is simple selfishness. We look at things from our own perspective and we cannot usually see beyond the end of our own nose. Consequently, when we look at things like this we can only judge them according to our own standard. We have to learn to look at things from God’s perspective. Since God is love, the only thing He can do is love. Therefore, we need to learn to look at things from the point of view of charity.
As Our Lord has the landowner in the Gospel speaking, he says, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Of course, the story is not about money – the story is about heaven. And so the question is: Are we going to be angry because somebody has a conversion at the end of their life and gets to go to heaven, and maybe we have been trying to be faithful for years and we get to go to heaven? I would suggest that we should not be upset by something like that, but rather, if we are going to live up to what it means to be a true Christian person, we need to rejoice in the fact that there are going to be more people in heaven.
Let us just look at it from a selfish perspective for a moment. Is there anyone here who really, honestly would say, “I wish that I were the only person who got to look at God face-to-face for eternity; I hope nobody else goes to heaven except me because I want to look at God only and I don’t want anybody else to share the vision”? Even in our selfishness I do not think any of us would say that. But now we need to turn it the other way and we need to be able to look at this situation and say, “You know, I don’t want anybody to go to hell. Even my worst enemy I would not want to have to go to hell.” That needs to be our attitude. We would want everybody to be in heaven, first of all because we do not want them to have to be in hell for eternity, but most especially because they will glorify God more. It will give God greater glory and that is what the whole thing is all about.
That is what Saint Paul is looking at in the second reading today. He is struggling within himself by asking the question: “I don’t know which I prefer: if I should live or if I should die. If I die, I get to go to heaven; but if I live, I get to stay here on earth and continue to work to spread the Gospel and bring more souls to Christ.” So he says (as would be evident for any of us), “I would rather die and go home because that is the better thing, but it may be more necessary that I stay here for your sake. I don’t know which to choose.” He goes on to say, For me, life is Christ and death is gain. Either way it did not matter to him because all he was focused on was God and all he wanted to do was the Will of God.
That is where the difference comes for all of us. If we would get the focus off of ourselves and put it onto God, we would start not only seeing things differently but we would do things differently. If that were the case, we would find that our thoughts begin to become more like God’s thoughts and our ways begin to become more like His ways. So when the Lord through the prophet says, Let the scoundrel forsake his ways and turn to Me for mercy, ask yourself, “Would we really like to say,” as unfortunately we sometimes do, “forget all the rest of these people. Just let them go their own way – we don’t want them in heaven anyway. Let them go the other direction”? Do we really want to say that? Or, if we really love God, would we prefer that they have a conversion?
Now if in our selfishness we would still say, “But why should they be able to go to heaven if they have a conversion at the last moment of their life when I’ve been struggling along just to try to remain faithful all of this time,” first of all, we have to put it in proper perspective from God’s way of looking at things. What we should be able to see is that we have been given an extraordinary privilege to be able to know the Lord Jesus Christ and to serve Him, because that is what love is all about. Love finds its expression in service. And so the Lord in His mercy has called each one of us. But, number two, if we were really honest with ourselves we would have to apply to our own selves the exact same measure that we would apply to the other people. If we are going to say, “Let them get what they deserve,” do you know what we deserve? The same thing they do. What we have earned by our sins is hell, and that is where we deserve to be for all eternity. But God has extended His mercy to us to be able to free us from the grip of Satan so that we could live according to His way and we could have the privilege of knowing Him and serving Him through loving Him in this world. And how do we love Him and serve Him in this world? By praying for others and spreading the Gospel, by bringing more souls to Christ.
You see, this is not about our own skewed idea of what justice would be in this matter because, as I mentioned, if we are going to be truly just, not only they but we deserve to spend eternity with Satan. And not only we, then, but they should have the mercy of God extended. Why should we think that we deserve God’s mercy but someone else does not? Maybe we think that way because someone has sinned against us and we refuse to forgive; therefore we hope they get condemned because of what they have done to us. Again, just take the logic to the next step and say, “Why do we think that we are so important, so high and mighty, that if someone does something to us they should not be forgiven; but we, on the other hand, well, if we sin against God and if we violate other people they should forgive us?” Why? Last week, the Lord told us that if we do not forgive we are not going to be forgiven. Every time we pray the Our Father we pray condemnation on ourselves if we refuse to forgive because we actually pray every single time that we would be forgiven only to the degree that we are willing to forgive ourselves. So we have to extend the mercy to others. When we see how merciful God has been to us, how can we fail to extend that mercy to others? how can we fail to hope that they would have a conversion? Again, just ask yourself, “Do you really wish that anyone” – I don’t care who it is – “would go to hell for eternity?” If so, then we really need to look at our own selves and ask: “What’s wrong with me that I am so merciless, that I am so vain and caught up in my own pride, that I would not want somebody, no matter who it is, to be freed from Satan’s grasp and go to heaven?”
You see, this whole thing is about souls. If we look at it in a merely human way, we might think it is unjust that we have to work in the Lord’s vineyard all of this time. But if we look at it through the eyes of faith, we will be able to see that we have been given the privilege, the absolute privilege, of being able to work in the Lord’s vineyard. We really need to thank God that we have been given the grace to convert before we were on our deathbed. Yes, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people, so we need to pray for those people; but there was a day in each of our lives when we were not so righteous and our own conversion brought about great joy for the angels and saints in heaven. Why would we want the joy to be less? Why would we want the glory that God receives to be less?
What Saint Paul prays for and what we need to be about is that the glory given to God would be the greatest. That means that we ourselves would love Him more and serve Him more perfectly, and that more people would come to know the Lord and to love Him and serve Him so that the glory and the honor and the praise that is given to God for eternity, as well as in this world, will be greater. That is the Christian way of looking at things. Not from the selfish point of view of saying, “I have been treated somehow unjustly,” but looking at it from the divine point of view and saying, “The only tragedy is that the people who convert on their deathbed did not have a longer time to know and to love and to serve the Lord.” The privilege we have to know Jesus and to serve Him is second to none, and we need to start to learn to see things from God’s perspective, to think the way He does, to act the way He does. That means to think and to act from the point of view of charity. Charity is not selfish, but it is focused on God and on the neighbor. When we are thinking in that way, we will not see things as an injustice, we will not see things from our selfish point of view, but we will see it only from God’s perspective. Then we will give Him glory because the greater glory and praise and honor will be given to Him when more know Him and love Him and serve Him in this life and forever.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.