26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen/St. Pius X-St. Mary of the Assumption
September 27, 2020
“As Bad as the Rest of Them”
The year was 1958 and I was in the second grade. That year, a new teacher introduced herself to my class, a class that numbered over fifty children. Having worked in a government office for many years, this new teacher had decided to try teaching elementary school as a second career. All of us immediately sensed that she would be unable to keep us under control. On that first day of school, bedlam broke out in the second grade and the bedlam continued all day, every day, for weeks and even months.
In the meantime, though, the first quarter report cards were distributed. My marks were good, except for religion, for which I received the equivalent of a “D”. My mother was astonished to see such a low mark and so she phoned the teacher. Mom explained that I studied my catechism lesson every night, and, on top of that, she went over my lesson with me, in the morning, before school. Not missing a beat, the teacher responded, “Sure, he knows his catechism lessons, but he doesn’t practice his faith – he’s just as bad as all the rest of them!” Considering my present line of work, I think you would agree that this was not a promising start!
The Second Son
Come to think of it, I was a lot like the second son in today’s Gospel, the one who readily agreed to obey his father’s request to work in the vineyard, but then went his own way for the rest of the day. Like many a child of my era, I solemnly promised my parents that I would be obedient to my teachers and kind to my classmates, but when I got to school, I was only too ready to join in the chaos.
In the Jesus’ parable, the second son represented the leaders of the people in his day who had solemnly dedicated themselves to the service of God and his people. In spite of that, they were often corrupt and self-seeking. For someone in my position, today’s Gospel really hits home. As a priest and bishop, I solemnly pledged to conform my life to the Word of God and to the mystery of the Cross, yet, often enough, I know only too well that I come up short. The greatest occupational hazard for a priest or bishop is not long hours or pressure, but rather the danger of being weak and insincere in living out the promises we made on the day of ordination. St. Augustine felt this same tension in his life and ministry. On the anniversary of his ordination, he wrote: “For you I am a bishop. With you, I am a Christian… Where I am terrified by what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I am with you.” So it is, dear friends, that there are no laurels for me to rest upon!
But the same thing can happen to anyone who professes to be a serious Christian. For example, in Confession we pray the Act of Contrition in which we promise “to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin”. No doubt, we say those words in all sincerity but often, it doesn’t take long before we’re up to our old tricks. In our baptismal promises, which we renew at Easter, we say, in effect, that we will fulfill the law by loving God and our neighbor, but when given half-a-chance, we so easily break from the law of love by loving ourselves more than God and neighbor, and seeking only our self-interest.
The First Son
Working in reverse order, let’s now look at the first son in Jesus’ parable, the son who, at first, refused to work in his father’s vineyard, but after thinking it over, relented, and did what his father had asked. When Jesus posed the question as to which of the two sons obeyed the father’s will, everyone, including Jesus’ opponents, answered that the first son had acted rightly.
Many times in my ministry, I have met this first son. Like fellow priests and others who work in the vineyard of the Church, I have met individuals, who were alienated from God and the Church for years, but who found their way home in the grace of the Holy Spirit. I’ve been amazed to witness the thoroughgoing conversion of their lives, as they turned from sins in which they had been enmeshed for many years. I’ve been amazed to see people who, beforehand, had given God’s will little thought, suddenly embracing God’s will with a newfound joy and innocence. Walking with them on their homeward journey has brought me more joy, inspiration and strength than almost anything else. When you see God working powerfully in the soul of a person who seemed to have hardened his or her heart against the Lord, it really confirms your belief in the power of God’s mercy to change hearts.
Perhaps at various stages in our lives we can be like both of those two sons. St. Augustine recognized our uncanny ability to shift from one column to the other when he admonished pastors against judging their people rashly; he said: “He of whom we had despaired is converted suddenly becomes very good. He from whom we had anticipated a great deal suddenly fails and becomes very bad. Neither our fear nor our hope is certain.” This from St. Augustine. How fickle, how changeable, the human heart!
But there is one heart that was steadfast in his dedication to the Father’s will, namely, the Father’s only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. In today’s second reading, “The Christ Hymn”, St. Paul poetically portrays how Christ emptied himself of his divine glory and became obedient to the Father’s will, to the point of death, even death on a cross, a most painful and humiliating death that, in the ancient world, was reserved for the worst of criminals and slaves. In obedience to the Father’s saving will, Jesus laid down his life for us, taking upon himself the punishment that our sins deserve. Sacramentally, Jesus still lays down his life for us, in the celebration of the Eucharist, wherein Christ’s sacrifice of love is renewed for us and for our salvation. Thus, what is proclaimed in Scripture is actualized for us in the Eucharist. As we struggle to be faithful to all we have promised the Lord and his Church, we do well to open our hearts to the Eucharistic Lord who loves us and who gave his life for us in obedience to his Father’s will.
A Church That Is Faithful and Obedient
But that’s not quite the end of it. Obedience to the law of love is not merely an individual matter. Rather, we as a church community, whether it’s our parish, our prayer group, or the whole Archdiocese stretching across Baltimore and nine Maryland counties … we must be a community that is formed in a spirit of loving obedience to Christ. Introducing the Christ hymn, St. Paul urged the Philippians and now he urges us to be “of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing… [doing] nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard[ing] others as more important than ourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others….”
In our Church we must avoid all forms of smugness, every form of divisiveness, every pretension of being better or more intelligent than others, but instead, walk humbly with our God and with one another in love, recognizing, together, that in God’s will is our peace.
May Mary, the sinless Mother of God, who consecrated her life to the will of God, pray for us and for our Church, that we may joyfully embrace the Father’s will every day of our lives, and may God bless you and keep you always in his love!