What an ugly week. Covid 19 deaths exceeded 200,000, fires and floods are still ravaging parts of our country and the fight for RBG’s seat is causing an even greater national divide. There were few bright spots but one of them for me was this week’s gospel and I hope it will be for you as well. But I warn you that to be enlightened by what it says requires a commitment to follow what it teaches.
First let us look at what Jesus said and to whom he first said it. He is very shrewd. He first tells his listeners that this story will be about a vineyard. Vineyards were used in Jewish storytelling to refer to the entire people. He next asks a son to work in it. The son at first refused but then relents and goes. Then he asks another son to do the same. He at first agrees but then does not go. When asked about who did the father’s will the audience had to admit that it was the first son. Now this is a very special audience. It was composed of chief priests and elders of the people who in the previous chapter asked Jesus from where he got his authority. Jesus replied that he would tell them only if they told him if John’s baptism was of God or just a human invention. Knowing that the people considered John a prophet they would not anger them by saying that his baptism was unholy. When Jesus asks about the two sons, he is telling them to look at who is making a difference in the community, the vineyard, and why. People who were the most unlike the leaders – tax collectors and prostitutes – were accepting the invitation to work in the vineyard. They knew that John was righteous and sought forgiveness of their sins. The religious leaders however did not think that they needed to repent and thus accomplished nothing.
Mathew’s situation was different. All the gospel writers knew many stories by and about Jesus. They chose the ones that were most meaningful to their realities. Matthew was a Pastor, and he was concerned that his parish was overly divided between those born Jews and those born Gentiles. He needed them to work together and this story was very helpful. I am sure that he noticed what Pastors, Rabbis and Imams have always seen, those who do the work, maintain the vineyard if you will, come from every ideological bent and are usually not the most vocal. He is asking his listeners to look at who is actually building the church up. He knows that it will be people from every background: former rabbis working with former devotees of every imaginable god. Then as now the most robust disciples would have been like the tax collectors and prostitutes, people who recognized their need to change and did so. As we saw a few weeks ago, Matthew knows that people will sin and will need to be forgiven constantly and that God’s desire to do so is infinite.
It is not those with the biggest mouths but the biggest hearts that find their way to the vineyard. To paraphrase the psalmist a broken contrite heart is the price of admission and humility is the ticket. It is not the most eloquent or learned or even the most morally upright or generous that finds him or herself working alongside Jesus but only those who knowing their sinfulness asks for his forgiveness and grace. This is real love. As Paul reminds the Corinthians: “If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
This year of horrors is a great opportunity to seek humility. Next Week Pope Francis will issue an encyclical on solidarity: what we owe to each other. It will not be completely agreeable to anyone. Catholic Social Teaching never is. None of the viable political options open to us sufficiently expresses Catholic social teaching that it demands assent. No one can look at another and assume that he or she is completely wrong. This does not mean that we should be paralyzed by perfection. The pure accomplish little in life. No matter what our ultimate political decision we will get our hands dirty; that is the cost of being a citizen in an imperfect world. “We may reject another’s decision totally but must accept that he or she is acting in good faith and with a clear conscience
That includes not only what we do in this year’s presidential election but how we reestablish St Charles. I ask you to read Dona Whiteford’ s reflection on our re-founding in this week’s email. If you are not on our list, please go to our website and sign up. She quotes from this week’s second reading from Paul letter to the Philippians “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others”
Matthew and Paul both have great experience with difficult communities and have much to teach us. Notice that they do not tell us to set up exploratory committees nor how to fund raise. They tell us to acknowledge our own sinfulness, forgive each other from our hearts and assume the basic decency of our fellow Christians. Given the talents of the people I see before me I assure you that I and the other parish leaders will be asking for your advice and assistance but again to return to Paul without the humility that comes from love we will be mere “clanging gongs or clashing cymbals”
If we are to rebuild St Charles Parish on the firmest possible ground, then it be by humility and the desire for mutual forgiveness and conversion. Our task is not to attain ideological purity but to build community.