Holiness in the Time of Mercy
September 22, 2002 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, God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, says, "Seek the Lord while He may be found; call on Him while He is near." Given the situation in the Church and in the world today, this is precisely what each one of us must do. It has never changed, of course, but it becomes more critical at certain times than at others - and today it is absolutely essential. As we watch the things that are going on around us, we realize that truly our only hope is in God. It is only in Jesus Christ that we are going to find peace and stability. It is only in Christ that we are going to have hope and confidence because we realize when we look at the human level of things, even in the institutional Church, that human beings are going to let us down. Human beings are human beings: They are all weak; they are all sinful; they will all do things that will let us down. If we put our faith in human beings, we are all going to be disappointed because not one single human person is going to be able to do a whole lot to be able to save our souls; only Jesus Christ is able to do that. It is with that in mind that we must keep our focus on the Lord.
Now as we look around and we see what is going on, we need simply to look again at the first reading from the prophet Isaiah and God says to us very clearly, "My ways are not your ways and My thoughts are not your thoughts." His ways are infinitely above ours and we do not understand His ways. The problem many of us fall into is that we try to understand. We look around at some of the scandals that are going on, we look around at the mess in the world with all the evil, and we wonder how God can tolerate it or we wonder why God would allow it. Or even worse, we wonder, "If God is in charge, how is this possible?" Therefore, some people reason: "Maybe God isn't in charge. Maybe this really isn't the one, true Church of Jesus Christ because if it was then none of these things should be happening in the Church. If there really was an all-powerful God, wouldn't He stop the evil in the world?" It would make sense to our human reason, but none of these things is correct. We have to remember that in order to eliminate evil God would have to eliminate human free will, and He will never do that because He created us with free will and He will never violate that freedom. And so, God will never eliminate the potential for evil. When we are no longer in the body, we will no longer sin - provided, of course, that we go the right direction - but until then the potential for sin is always there, and it is something all of us have to recognize.
Saint Paul calls each one of us to live a life worthy of the Gospel. That is all that is really necessary for each one of us: to live a life worthy of the Gospel. It is not a matter of simply looking around at everybody else and trying to judge ourselves by their standards; but rather, it is keeping our focus on Jesus Christ and judging ourselves according to His standards. So we cannot look around and say, "Well, I'm doing better than everybody else." That was not the question. The question is, are we living a life worthy of the Gospel? Are we living saintly lives, holy lives? Remember, more than anything, what the Church needs today is saints. Now you may be sitting back after hearing that and saying, "That's not me; I'm not a saint." Every saint was a normal human person who responded to God in an extraordinary way. Today is a time of mercy. God called, through the prophet Isaiah, to let the scoundrel forsake his ways. Each one of us is a sinful person. Each one of us, if we really are honest with ourselves, would have to say, "Well, I'm kind of that scoundrel, am I not?" But God says to turn to Him while we can. This is a time of mercy. Remember, as I have told you before, there is no greater time in the history of the world to be a Roman Catholic than today - never in the history of the world has that been true. This is the time when God is going to make extraordinary saints out of ordinary people. Do you want to be one of them? Do you want to keep your focus on Jesus Christ or do you want to be like everyone else?
When we look at our own selves, we have to realize that in one way or the other, like in the Gospel reading, we are the one who signed on at five o'clock. We were not there when the Lord showed up and asked us if we would go out into His field and work. We were not there at dawn; we were still sleeping. Most of us were not there at nine o'clock or at noon or at three either; we showed up around five o'clock and then had the neat excuse that no one hired us throughout the day. How could He? We were not there. We were following our own pursuits and our own interests, and we were getting ourselves involved in sin. Now at the late hour, the Lord comes one more time to the marketplace and He finds us there and says, "Go out into the field and work." Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to forsake your way and come to the Lord? Are you willing to do the work of the Lord, to live a life worthy of the Gospel?
We are the ones of whom the Lord says, "The last will be first." God can make a great saint out of you. Are you willing to allow Him to do that? Are you willing, like Saint Paul, to say, "It doesn't matter which it is. Death for me means Christ, and life means a life of productive toil." Now if you are like me, you probably would say, "Death sounds like the better deal." Yet knowing my own sins well enough, that is not going to happen; therefore, it had better be a life of productive toil because we know how badly we have offended the Lord. Now that we have come into His vineyard, we had better serve Him knowing fully well that, as the Lord has promised in today's Gospel, the wage He is going to give us is equal to the wage He is giving to those people who have been in His vineyard since dawn. And as a matter of justice to our Master, we need to do as much work in our late hour as those who have been laboring since the dawn have been doing.
Since we were not out in the field since dawn, we should have a little extra energy. We need to take up the task at this time and we need to put ourselves wholeheartedly into it. Those who have been at it all day long would be very tired by this point, but we should still be fresh. Therefore, if we are going to choose the Lord, if we are going to put our focus on Jesus Christ and say "yes" to Christ, to forsake our sinful ways and come to Him, to call on Him while He is near, to seek Him while He may be found, to look to Him for mercy, then we need to truly live what it is that He is asking us to live. Just think, if we were there in that marketplace at five o'clock in the afternoon knowing that we would only have to go out into the field for an hour, would we show up in the field and stand around with our hands in the pockets and talk? Would we nonchalantly grab a little bunch of grapes here and a little bunch of grapes there and say that we did work worthy of the wage that we were going to be given? Would we see if we could do the absolute minimum so the supervisor would be satisfied that we were in fact working, when in fact we really were not putting forth a whole lot of effort?
Our supervisor is Jesus Christ. We are not going to fool Him by making Him think that we are putting forth an effort when we are really not. He knows what is in our hearts; He knows what our real effort is. So it is not a matter of trying to do the minimum - we have done that most of our lives - now it is a matter of really taking up the burden, taking up the task and saying, "If I am going to say 'yes' to Jesus Christ then I need to live it," - to live a life worthy of the Gospel, as Saint Paul said. Not to live a life that makes other people think you are living a life worthy of the Gospel, when in fact you are not; but to live a life truly worthy of Jesus Christ, worthy of His Gospel. That is what each one of us is being called to.
This is an extraordinary time in human history and God is doing extraordinary things. More than ever, it is now when we need to recognize that His ways are not our ways, so do not question what He is doing. What He is doing is giving to each one of us an opportunity to say "yes" to Him in the midst of very difficult circumstances. It would be very easy if it were a good Catholic world and if most people were living a good Catholic life; we would just be one of the crowd saying "yes" to the Lord because we want to be like everyone else. Now we have an opportunity not to be like everyone else but to be like Jesus Christ, and that is the only thing that matters. We can be like everyone else and go right where they are going for the rest of eternity, or we can be like Jesus Christ and be with Him for the rest of eternity. The choice is ours - each one of us individually. And whatever we choose we are going to have to answer for.
But if we choose Jesus Christ, make no bones about it, it is going to be a life of toil - "productive toil", as Saint Paul says. It is going to be a life that is going to be unique because it is not going to be what most people are doing and it may not even appear the way that others who are choosing Jesus Christ will appear. The virtue will be similar; the way the life will be lived may be a little different. We need to do whatever the Lord asks of us, and what He asks of each one here may be slightly different from what He asks of the one sitting next to us. It does not matter. All that matters is obedience to Jesus Christ; that is the only thing that matters.
That is the choice we have to make. Forget trying to figure it out. Try to explain to anybody why God allows scandals in His Church. Try to explain to anybody why God allows babies to be killed and old people to be killed and injustices, and why He allows the evil to thrive and the good to be kicked around. Try to explain that to anybody. Logically, it does not make sense because His ways are not our ways. What He wants is for us to be able to look at that and say, "You know what? If I became evil like some of these other people, I could be rich, I could have everything that I want, I could have position, I could have power, I could have wealth, I could be just like them!" and in the midst of that to say, "But I choose Jesus Christ! Which means I choose to be rejected, which means I choose to be kicked around, which means I choose to be treated in an unjust manner because people hate Christ, therefore, they will hate me too." Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that as long as we choose Jesus everything is going to be wonderful because Jesus did it all for us. No, if we choose Jesus Christ, it means the Cross, it means living the life of Christ. Jesus did not live an easy life and neither will His followers. And so He wants us to make a radical choice; that is why He is allowing all of this.
In the midst of a scandal, are you willing to stay in His Church? In the midst of a scandal where the leaders in the Church are the ones who are causing the problems, are we willing to keep our focus on Jesus Christ? God condemned the shepherds that shepherded themselves and not the flock, through the prophet Ezekiel; but He did not say that because we have bad shepherds who are only hirelings therefore to leave the flock. We have a Good Shepherd and it is Him that we must follow. If we have hirelings who are not following Christ, then do not follow the hireling, follow Christ - but don't leave the Shepherd of your souls because the hireling is pretty lousy. Stick with Jesus. That is the choice we have to make and it is not an easy one. Well, it is when we look at it objectively; but when we look at it subjectively it does not make sense. Am I going to follow a Shepherd who allows hirelings to destroy His flock, to fleece them, to take their milk, and to pasture themselves instead of pasturing the sheep? Do I want a Master who hires somebody like that? Do I want to follow God, who allows scandals to destroy His Church? Do I want to be saying "yes" to Jesus, who allows His own to get kicked around?
It is a very clear dichotomy. We know what it is going to require to say "yes" and we cannot fool ourselves into anything else. But we also know exactly what we need to do, and each one of us individually needs to make that choice with the full knowledge of what it is going to require. Are we willing to go into the Lord's vineyard and work? Are we willing to allow Him to make us saints? Are we willing to forsake our sinful ways, to call on Him and come to Him while He is near, and to seek His mercy in this time of mercy? Are we willing to put all of our logic aside, because His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways, and forget telling Him how to "play God" and let Him be God and get behind Him so that we follow Him instead of trying to lead Him, instead of trying to tell Him that we know a better way to run the Church and we know a better way to run the world?
Let Him be God and just be obedient; that is all He is asking of us. It is not particularly difficult when we see it that way. It is made difficult when we see all the scandals and the bad examples and all the evil around us. That looks pretty enticing and we do not understand it, but we understand that the Lord is asking us to be obedient and to live a life worthy of the Gospel. And that is all we need to understand; forget the rest of it. The best thing to do, in essence, is to put on blinders. You know it is there, but what difference does it make? All that matters is following Christ and being obedient to Him. If we are going to take the yoke on our shoulders then we need to be willing to do the work. If we want to get to Heaven then we need to be willing to say, "Yes, I will go out into Your vineyard and I will work. I will allow You to make me into a saint," because that is what He needs today. He does not need any more mediocre Catholics; the cup overflows with them. He needs saints. Do you want to be a saint? Are you willing to be a saint, no matter what the cost? Are you willing to allow God to be magnified through you, as Saint Paul said? Whether that means life or death, it does not matter; it means simply doing the Will of God and living a life truly worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.