|Photo: Alphonsus Fok & Grace Lu|
Homily of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP for the ‘Celebrate the Journey’ Mass for major Wedding Anniversaries, 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, 18 September 2011
A man lies dying. He’s a hardened sinner and he refuses to repent. His wife and children beg him to receive a priest and the Last Rites. He refuses. At least he has the integrity not to feign a death-bed conversion. But is it integrity or stubbornness? He’s not sure. He wants to go out with no regrets, singing I did it my way. So he resists every prompting of grace, whether it’s the tears of his family or the unease of his conscience.
The man’s breathing is laboured; the end is near. He sees what looks like a ghostly presence hovering above him at the ceiling. Just one of those dying man’s illusions, he tells himself, like out-of-body experiences and seeing bright lights down a long corridor and welcoming faces. Superstitious nonsense: if you’re going to believe in ghosts you might as well believe in the Holy Ghost. So he tries to keep his heart hard, closed, impenetrable. His breathing comes to its climax with one last breath, then a long peaceful exhalation. As he breathes his last he momentarily lets down his guard; a chink appears in the armour around his heart; the Holy Spirit swoops down through that crack and fills his heart with love and repentance. He is ready for God.
Australians are a fair-minded people, no respecters of personages. We believe in giving everyone a fair go and in a fair day’s pay for fair day’s work. All this is very Christian. So what on earth is going on in the divine vineyard this morning (Mt 20:1-6)? Some people, especially the Jews, have laboured for God under the hot sun all day long and now these Jonny-come-latelies, mostly Gentiles, get the same pay. The shop-stewards and industrial commissions wouldn’t stand for this! Consoling as it is that God will always have us back, and our wayward children and friends too, it can still be a bit galling when professional sinners, after a life of debauchery whose pleasures we may secretly envy, return to God, are absolved of all wrongdoing and gets front-row seats in heaven! In this tenth anniversary week of 9-11 who could believe that an Osama bin Laden could repent just before the special forces got him and share heaven with a Mother Teresa? Sure, God’s ways are not our ways, as our First Reading reminds us (Isa55:6-9). But sometimes His accounting seems plain ramshackle.
Yet who we to audit the Book of Life? None of us deserved life, our natural talents and opportunities. None of us deserved salvation, the innumerable supernatural graces we receive. Friendship, we all know, comes unmerited, unexpected, unmeasured. Sure, we can work for it, open ourselves up to its infinite possibilities, cooperate with it and respond to it with equal affection. But we can never force it, never demand it. Spouses know that. Parents know that. None of us deserved our beloved or our children or the many years we’ve had together.
Grace is like friendship; indeed it is friendship, friendship with God and through God with others. By definition it is undeserved, unmeasured, unexpected: it is God’s sovereign generosity lavished upon us all. That’s why in our Eucharistic Prayer today we ask God not to do us justice: “admit us, we beseech you, into the company [of your saints], not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon, through Christ our Lord.” Not weighing our merits, but giving us much more than we deserve: thankfully God far exceeds our pusillanimous accounting. That means we may be surprised whom we see in heaven!
Does all this make your fidelity to marriage, your generosity with each other, with each other’s in-laws, with your children and grandchildren, your forgiving each other as often as Peter was told to last Sunday, your efforts to keep communicating, your little acts of kindness, your total gift of yourselves to each other and to God, all worthless? Is justification, in the end, arbitrary, so that nothing we do by way of acknowledging or responding to God, our own professions of faith, our prayers and penances, our good works can contribute even one iota to salvation. As the parable shows, the Divine Vigneron doesn’t care, doesn’t even notice!
Well, let’s look more closely at that parable. First, we note that all those rewarded by the Master did in fact respond to his call to come into the vineyard, whether in the last few minutes or for many hours. Some respond rather late to God’s gracious invitation, but respond they must if they are to join Him: God won’t force anyone into the Church on earth or in heaven. The invitations may be innumerable but in the end we must say Yes.
Secondly, we notice that the response is a lived one: we must not only sayyes to God but also live yes to God. For however long or short a time we are given in God’s vineyard we have some work to do there. Whether it’s the domestic grind, the complex task of loving well, the challenges of family or work, the making of time for prayer amidst the busyness of modern life, all our acts of lovemaking of one kind or another: we all get grapes to pick in the Lord’s vineyard; we make our contribution to the divine harvest. And when we do, it really is good, good in itself, good for us and others; it really merits God’s gratuitous promises. We might not deserve heaven but God does, and if He chooses to associate us in His work of salvation, He makes us merit that salvation, He makes us deserving.
There’s a third reason why living a good married life matters. Not only must we say yes to God and live yes to God: we must also die yes to God. Osama bin Laden had every chance to repent, right up to the moment he breathed his last. If he finally said yes to the God of Love that would have meant heaven for him, though one suspects after a rather long purgatory! We don’t know. But this much is clear: if we devote our lives to hatred and violence, or to debauchery and abuse, or to materialism and envy, we become so ingrained in living outside the Lord’s vineyard that it will be almost unimaginable for us to change course at the end. Christian marriage and family life, on the other hand, is a school in virtue, a school in generosity and peace-making. Christian marriage prepares you to say yes to God, right to the end, not ‘No’ or ‘Maybe’ or ‘Only on my terms’.Thanks be to God, then, that you have said yes to working in his vineyard that is your marriage and family and home. Your long years of marriage – some of you 25 years, 30, 40, 50, 60 and more – says loud and clear where you stand. Without being vain or presumptuous about it, you know that living your marriage well and doing good in your family forms you for something more. You are readying yourselves for the marriage feast of heaven and eternal life in the family of God.