Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Rembrandt Laborers in the Vineyard

Let’s imagine a Lebanese vineyard, with vines sagging with grapes for the harvest. The cool mornings of fall have arrived.

The owner of the vineyard has arisen before dawn. He, all his family, and his trusty steward have worked hard through the summer. The good weather has yielded a rich abundance of ripe grapes. Now an enormous amount of work needs doing, in short order. All the grapes must be picked and gathered, pressed, and trod.

So the owner is walking the road to the town square before sunrise. He meets a large group of men who themselves are on their way to the square. In the dim light, the owner stops the men and offers them the customary wage for a day’s work.

The owner hopes these men will work hard, and they do—but not quite as hard as he imagined they would. So, when the time comes for the workers’ first break of the day, the owner marches down the road again, to the square.

Continue reading “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard”

Heaven vs. Cheesecake, Etc.

When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart. (Jeremiah 15:16)

The words of God filled the prophet with happiness. Why? The prophet answers: “Because I bore the name of the Lord God of hosts.”

The treasure buried in the field, the pearl of great price: the thing worth giving everything else up for… What excels the worth of every other conceivable thing? A person can take the long way or the short way to find the answer.

People get themselves in trouble when they say things like, “I would sell my soul for that piece of double-chocolate sinful decadence truffle cheesecake a la mode.” Or when they say something like, “If this is wrong, baby, I don’t want to be right.”

Trouble. Physical pleasure cannot justify total self-abandonment. Sensual delight is not the pearl of great price.

What about worldly glory? “I don’t want to be a mean guy. But I might have to tread on a few people’s heads to get to the top.” Or: “Gosh. I have built up such a great reputation for myself. Yeah, I made a little mistake here, but no one needs to know. They wouldn’t know the difference anyway. I’ll cut a corner here with the truth.”

Sounds a lot like what the former president of Penn State might have said to himself. Glory and power cannot quite justify total self-abandonment, either. How about money?

If I sell my soul for money, how much will I get? Will I get enough to put Robert Griffin III under contract to play quarterback for my pick-up touch-football team? And that will be fun for..what? an hour?

So: By the long way or the short way, we realize: God trumps. The eternal vocation of my immortal soul trumps. Nothing can really compete with the prospect of eternal happiness in heaven.

Four hours on an ATV, with unlimited gas, vs. heaven? Free Big Macs, every day for a month, vs. heaven? Two weeks in Monte Carlo, with fourteen different Gucci suits to wear while I’m there, vs. heaven? Heaven wins every time. It’s not even a fair fight. You could even throw something involving the young Sophia Lauren into the mix, and it still wouldn’t really be a contest. Heaven is better.

So: getting to heaven… The prophet: “How can I be healed?” The Lord: “If you repent—if you bring forth the precious without the vile, I will make you a wall of polished brass.”

If we find ourselves seeking God, it is because He has already found us. If we make good use of the sacraments, it is because the Lord gave them to us so that we could get to heaven. If our consciences accuse us of sin, it is because the Lord wants only to forgive and give us grace to sin no more.

His words, which, when we devour them, give happiness to our hearts…what are they exactly? Aren’t they as simple as this? “I made you in my own image and likeness for eternal life. My Son took your sins upon Himself, so that you can shine forever with perfect justice. Just let me love you.”

Abandon ourselves completely to that? Yes.

…PS. Click here to read one of the more inspiring exercises of pastoral leadership I have ever seen.

Click here to read another one.

Understanding the Word of the Kingdom. And not.

“The word of the kingdom.”

The Kingdom of God is at hand. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done. The kingdom of God is within you. The kingdom of God has come to you.

So spake the Son of God. And He tells us: You will bear fruit if you receive the word of the kingdom and understand it.

Understand it. Okay. Sure. No problem. 2 + 2 = 4, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Easy.

Right?

Well, no. If understanding the word of the kingdom means grasping the whole business fully. “Yeah, I’ve got this. The kingdom of God looks just like…umm…ahhh…”

But: Yes, it is easy, if “understanding the word of the kingdom” means:

God speaks. He says His kingdom comes. He speaks true and wills nothing but the best. His kingdom must be awesome and glorious, more so than my meager powers can imagine. He’s asking me to believe in it. I would be a fool not to, because this is God we’re talking about.

I understand that the kingdom in question belongs to God. Not to Robert Griffin III or Mariah Carey or David Cameron.

Therefore, I clearly have no business thinking that I can altogether understand the kingdom of God right now. I could understand the Kingdom of Elton John, and it would not do too much for me. But the kingdom of God? I understand perfectly well that I cannot understand it.

I think that is precisely the kind of non-understanding understanding that the Lord wants.

…PS. Long-time, faithful readers will recall that this ridiculous little weblog began life as a venue for me to jump up and down (verbally) after Team USA won the basketball gold in Beijing.

Four years later: Let’s get fired up again, people!

Slow, Invisible Growth

The parable of the seed scattered on the ground would seem to present one distinctive element, namely the invisible power of growth which the seed possesses.

The parable has three moments in its drama:

1. The man appears, and sews the seed.

2. What seems like a long time passes in which the man does not appear. Instead, an invisible force brings about the slow growth of the corn.

3. The man appears again at just the right moment, sickle in hand, to harvest the ripe corn.

The parable presents an image of the Kingdom of God as it appears in history.

1. The King appeared on earth and deposited the power of salvation.

2. Ages pass in which the King does not visibly appear. But His invisible power operates; the Kingdom grows. As St. Paul put it, regarding his own ministry, “Neither he that plants is anything, nor he that waters, but God gives the increase.” (I Cor 3:7)

3. When everything has been completed, the King will appear before our eyes again, and the blade of His truth will separate good from evil. He and everything good will shine with glory.

The moral of the story, then, as I see it: Patience, trust.

God knows His business. Everything we need is right under our noses, in the perennial customs of the Holy Church. In due time, we will grow to ripe fullness.

Unforgiving Steward, Dishonest Steward

As I reflect upon my meager efforts to discharge faithfully my sacred duties, I recall that I have tackled a good number of the Lord Jesus’ parables.

One of these days, I will present you with a handy compendium of my many tedious commentaries on the little stories of our Lord. In the meantime, here goes a ‘compare & contrast’ to whet the appetite…

The parable of the dishonest steward presents us with a great challenge. What does it mean?

Book of the Holy Gospels
Maybe it will help to compare and contrast this parable with the parable of the unforgiving steward.

Both parables present the same set of circumstances: a failed bureaucrat gets called to account by his master. Both stewards find themselves in desperate straits, because their boss has discovered their enormous incompetence.

But the two stewards react in diametrically opposed ways. The unforgiving steward initially begs his master’s mercy—and receives it—only to lose it by being stingy and unmerciful himself.

The dishonest steward, however, compounds his dishonesty by secretly forgiving his master’s debtors. Then he finds himself praised by his master for doing so.

One element of the stories that leaps out is this: The unforgiving steward utterly failed to understand his master’s thinking, whereas the dishonest steward understood his master even better than he knew.

The first steward promised to repay his own enormous personal debt to his master. The master knew that would never happen, so he wrote off the debt for good. But the servant failed to grasp that his master was being merciful with him. The steward marched out into the street believing his own nonsense about coming up with lots of money that he didn’t have and never would have.

The dishonest steward, on the other hand, was actually remarkably honest and practical with himself. He knew his limits and immediately took action to turn a desperate situation into a livable outcome. He knew that his very survival depended on his cultivating friends, so he used the means he had at hand to win some people over.

Can we doubt that his master smiled at this behavior precisely because this is the way in which he himself became rich? When he saw his steward seizing his opportunity, he thought to himself, ‘This dude really isn’t as much of a numbskull as I thought he was.’

Another common element of the two parables is this: In both cases, the masters possess enough wherewithal to write off massive losses indulgently. They both lose a lot of money because their stewards are incompetent, but they do not give the lost money a second thought. Instead, they focus on the persons before them.

So, the moral: God smiles on us when we humbly and practically seek the help we need to get our sinful butts to heaven.

Prudently Reckless

Jesus said to his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)

Anybody seen this summer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie? Is it true that there is no buried treasure in it? How about a precious pearl? What about Keira Knightley?

Well, if the movie has no treasure chest and no pearl earrings, that’s okay. Because the gospel reading does.

Continue reading “Prudently Reckless”

Stonewall, Hindenburg, Bats

150 years ago today, Confederate General Barnard Bee, seeing reinforcements arrive on a hill north of Manassas, Va., exclaimed:

There is a Jackson, standing like a stone wall!

…We seek God. We strive for the only truly worthy goal.

Every visible thing we see will lift us up to Him, if we let it. Creation as a whole serves as the ultimate parable. God made it all for one reason: to lead us to Him.

But we look and do not see. We hear, but we do not understand. The Lord whispers His declaration of love to us at every instant, but we have iPod buds in our ears, crackling with noise. The Lord smiles on us with delight at every instant, but we have our cool sunglasses on, so we cannot see Him.

The sun shines more brightly than the moon and the stars. But when it rises in the morning, bats go blind. We are spiritual bats: We live in a spiritual night, able to see what we need to survive—and even come up with some pretty good ideas sometimes. But we cannot see the Sun of Truth. The simple, infinite truth shines all the time, moving all things, attracting all things. But we cannot see it.

National Air and Space Museum!
Yet. The Lord said to His disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.”

What do we have in common with the disciples to whom the Lord Jesus first spoke these words?

With the first disciples, we believe this: The One Who spoke the parables also spoke the great parable of creation. Every thing comes from, and leads towards, the crucified teacher. It is Christ that we seek, and—blind and deaf as we are—He has come and found us.

…Earlier this year, they made a tv-movie in Germany about the Hindenburg blimp disaster of 1937. I can’t see why, because the 1975 George C. Scott “Hindenburg” is the best movie ever made. The critics panned it, but they were disastrously wrong.

George C. Scott makes George Clooney look like Pee Wee Herman. “The Hindenburg” has Charles Durning at his petulant best, romance of the most subtle kind, a genuinely evocative insight into the German soul in 1937, and a worthy ending. I think it is the first movie I ever saw. I was spoiled for life. Check it out at your local library.

Zealotry and John Tesh

The Lord Jesus spoke His parables in order to illuminate the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Jewish people of Christ’s time eagerly anticipated the establishment of a divine kingdom. Having been subjugated to foreign powers for centuries, the Jews longed for the restoration of the ancient kingdom of David.

Christ had to express in parables the mysterious and spiritual nature of His kingdom. His kingdom would not come as His contemporaries supposed it would come. The Kingdom of God was established on the throne of the cross.

So it is all very well and good for us now, with two millennia of perspective, to tsk-tsk Christ’s ancient audience for the shallowness of their ideas about the Kingdom of God.

They wanted the kingdom to have an army, and a just economy, and a handsome king on parade. They wanted seats of honor, and tax breaks, and leafy fig trees to lounge under on the hot days.

Continue reading “Zealotry and John Tesh”