My father had a strict rule when my brother and I were children. When we divvied up a piece of cake or other treat, he would say, “one divides while the other chooses.” The regulation, he said, was intended to prevent squabbles about unfairness or uneven division. If the brother who split the portion also were to choose which helping he would take, there would be a natural incentive to divide the ration in an uneven way, given the reality of original sin. The brother who was cheated out of his full portion then would cry foul and a fight inevitably would break out. To keep the peace, one divided while the other chose.
Jesus tells another parable in the gospel reading this Sunday. The workers who started their employment late in the afternoon obviously expected to be paid a small portion of the daily wage, but surprisingly were given the usual rate for the entire day, which in those times was a Roman silver coin called a denarius. When the day laborers who had arrived in the morning and had worked all day saw this, they expected to be paid more. If the latecomers earned a silver coin for one hour of work, they must have thought, shouldn’t they earn twelve silver coins for twelve hours of work? That would be the fair and equal result. Yet, when they also received the normal daily wage, they grumbled against their employer because the portions had been divided unequally and they did not get to choose the portion they would receive. Since they equated inequality with injustice, they complained.
We began a four-week message series two weeks ago called, Get off your high horse, Lone Ranger, and let’s do life together. The series is based on the four destructive and isolating behaviors and attitudes Jesus addresses in the gospel readings over this period, such as making judgments about others, refusing to forgive people, and becoming too self-righteous. The parable of the day laborers is a perfect illustration of the human tendency to become resentful and jealous when we perceive that we have not been treated fairly. The landowner’s response to the complaints of the day laborers essentially was to tell them to get off their high horses. “What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?” he asked. “Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
As Psalm 37 exclaims, the Lord hears the cry of the poor; he does not hear the cry of the jealous, the bitter, the indignant, and the resentful. The point of the parable is that God opens his hand to those in need, giving generously, even to those who have dallied and waited until the eleventh hour. The Lord gives people what they need, not what they think they deserve or what human wisdom defines as “fair.”
If you, like most of us, have taken umbrage at some perceived offense or inequality against yourself by others, catch yourself falling off your high horse andn forgive. The impact from the drop may be a little painful, but there will be others there to heal you and welcome you back into the community.
“Pay it forward” has become a common term in American parlance ever since the Hollywood film by the same name was released in 2000. It’s the story of a young boy, who attempts to make the world a better place after his teacher gives him that chance.
The movie chronicles twelve-year old Trevor McKinney’s launch of a goodwill movement known as “pay it forward.” Trevor’s social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet, gives the class an assignment to devise and put into action a plan that will change the world for the better. Trevor’s plan is a charitable program based on the networking of good deeds. He calls his plan “pay it forward,” which means the recipient of a favor does a favor for three others rather than paying the favor back.
Trevor’s vision is that the uplifting actions continue along a branching tree of good deeds, spreading across the whole world. Indeed, the movie sparked a number of pay-it-forward movements. In Atlanta, for example, a Christian radio station, “104.7 The Fish,” created the “Drive Thru Difference.” Customers in a drive-through line at a fast food restaurant are encouraged to pay for the food of the person waiting in line behind them. “You never know what type of difference you could make in the lives of those around you,” the station’s website urges. “The person working at the restaurant sees you making a difference, and the person behind you may even decide to do the same thing for the person behind them.”
In the gospel reading today, Jesus basically sets forth a pay-it-forward program of forgiveness. In the parable told by Jesus, the audience rightfully is scandalized by the actions of the unforgiving servant, who was forgiven an enormous debt by the king but then refused to pay forward the mercy he received and forgive someone who owed him a much smaller debt.
We all know that we should forgive each other. Yet, one of the most common confessions I hear is lack of forgiveness. Perhaps the incongruence is best explained by an assumption that forgiveness is something we choose to extend magnanimously, when it suits us. Forgiveness, we tend to think, is a free act of generosity towards the one who has offended us. We can decide whether to forgive or to condemn, to show mercy or to remain unmerciful, to move on or cling to resentment.
There is some truth, of course, to this perception. However, the last words of the parable should remind us that the mercy and forgiveness we seek from God is conditioned on our readiness to extend mercy and offer forgiveness. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “[f]orgiveness is the fundamental condition of the reconciliation of the children of God with their Father and of men with one another” (CCC n. 2844).
Forgiveness is an act of the will. “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (CCC n. 2843). Today, pay forward God’s incredible mercy and forgiveness given to you through the atonement of Christ on the Cross.
Jesus built his church on the rock of Peter, as we heard in the gospel reading two weeks ago. I think we can all agree that Jesus was savvy and must have known that gathering a sinful people in his name to worship God, connect with each other, grow in faith, serve others, and spread the Word would be a daunting task, to say the least. Fights would break out, conflicts develop, and divisions follow. He therefore set up in the gospel reading today a very clear system for conflict management within the Church he founded.
Disciples first are to work out their disagreements in private, so that a Christian who falls into serious sin can and should expect fraternal correction. If this approach does not bear fruit, they are to bring witnesses, in order to heighten the guilty party’s awareness of the seriousness of the sin, much like a modern-day “intervention.” If he or she still refuses to repent, Jesus says to “tell the church,” which may, as a last resort, temporarily excommunicate the person until they seek forgiveness.
This instruction undoubtedly would have made sense in ages past, when the Church was dominant, influential, and the foundation of society itself. Indeed, the Church had authority to judge cases of misconduct and impose penalties and sanctions, including excommunication and even imprisonment for priests religious and to root out heresy through its own judicial processes. Thus, to “tell the church,” as Jesus directed, was a fitting solution in an era when it was the linchpin of the social order.
How do we make sense of the command to “tell the Church” in a world today, where religion largely has been marginalized, driven out of the public sector, and relegated to the private sphere of life? Indeed, “[o]ne of the greatest challenges to the life of Faith in the modern world is the privatization of religion [and] . . . the elimination of [its] naturally communitarian character” (Jeff Mirus, Ph.D. www.catholicculture.org, June, 14, 2015). Whereas the local parish was the hub of every kind of activity in the past, today the spokes have come loose.
Though we may be tempted to mourn the loss of a muscular church, there is a silver lining. Today, we are forced to focus more on inspiring people than commanding them, on elevating their souls to heaven than frightening them into submission. The parish renewal movement that is spreading across our country is built on insightful preaching, inviting hospitality, and beautiful music. It emphasizes winning converts, saving the lost, and attracting unbelievers. Increasingly, parishes are paring down extraneous activities like bingo, parties with no discernable spiritual benefit, and poorly-attended events that continue year after year simply for the sake of tradition. Instead, the quality of the Sunday worship experience and deepening every person’s relationship with God have become the center of church growth.
Although many of the historical but secular functions of the Church have been stripped from her control, the Church’s ancient mission to “go and make [true] disciples,” perhaps now more than ever, out of necessity, is being lived out to the full. Therefore, even now, we can go and “tell the church,” as Jesus commanded, because the more genuine disciples are formed, the less fraternal correction will be necessary in the first place.
Sunday, September 3, 2017
Twenty years old and a sophomore in college, I decided to try out becoming a police officer. I abandoned my studies for a semester and joined the Atlanta Police Department. The challenging obstacle course at the academy remains a vivid memory. It was filled with hurdles, fences, walls, and ditches that had to be negotiated with a certain amount of skill and in a certain amount of time. Looking back, it perhaps was the obstacle course that ultimately convinced me to return to my schoolwork.
Life is filled with obstacles, problems, and obstructions that stand in the way of freedom, happiness, and growth. These may include financial and relationship difficulties, troubles at work or school, and illness. Most of the time, we think of these hindrances as barriers that simply block the attainment of our personal ambitions in life. In the gospel reading today, however, Jesus refers to Peter himself as an obstacle because he tries to talk Jesus out of his destiny. Peter rebukes Jesus for believing that he will be persecuted in Jerusalem by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. By essentially saying, “Come on, everything thing’s going to be okay, stay positive,” Peter denies the mission of Jesus and invalidates the truth of what he must face.
I have heard this same conversation many times when well-meaning people try to “cheer up” someone who is going through a difficult time. Adult children encourage their elderly parents who are seriously ill in the hospital by telling them they will soon be going home, when in fact they will not. Friends often downplay what someone is feeling with platitudinous phrases like, “it’ll get better,” “it could be worse,” or “you shouldn’t feel that way.” Priests, ministers, and counselors who try to draw the sting of a troubling situation with trite religiosity and blame shifting to the divine only rob the hurting individual of the nobility of his or her suffering. The patterns of rhetoric we choose when with all sincerity seeking to buoy another person going through a difficult time can unwittingly reinforce the erroneous notion that every unpleasant obstacle in life is a hurtle to be overcome as quickly as possible, so that we can return to our own goals and desires.
Jesus reminds his disciples in the gospel passage that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Jesus’] sake will find it.” Sometimes, the greatest act of charity for a suffering individual is simple accompaniment without a lot of words. A quiet, supportive presence avoids false encouragement, does not deny the truth of the situation, and usually is all that is needed to comfort the person.
In those times when suffering is confronted authentically, when we deny ourselves for Christ and willingly take up our crosses because he did the same for us, the experience can be redemptive and edifying. Similarly, when we refuse to become an unintended obstacle to the difficult future faced by another person by using stale idioms and offering false hope, but rather are willing to accept what lies ahead alongside the one who must face it, then we and the suffering person will experience the truth of the resurrection after the dark night is over.
Father Roger Gustafson