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How Not to Think Like a Servant
Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Steven D. Greydanus
This Friday, October 13th, is the 100th anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, and on this date, October 8th, Pope St. John Paul II consecrated the whole world to Our Lady of Fatima. Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!
The message of Fatima calls us to amend our lives, to turn away from sinful habits, and to pray, especially the rosary.
Our Lord calls us in the Gospel acclamation we just heard to “bear fruit that will remain.” So much of what goes on around us is worthless fruit: the wild grapes of the first reading, not the crop of choice grapes fit for the Lord’s wine press.
So the Lord allows his vineyard to become a ruin. He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! We’ve seen bloodshed this week, in Las Vegas. At times like this we can’t help asking, “Why did this happen? Why them?” When Jesus was asked a question like that, he said, “Do you think the ones who were killed were worse sinners than anyone else?” No. God calls us all to amend our ways.
Getting more out of Mass
Do you want to get more out of Mass? There’s something very simple you can do to prepare each week before coming to Mass. Some of you are already doing it. Read through the Sunday readings at home, before you come to church. There are many ways to do this. Some of you subscribe to Magnificat, or other publications. You can also do it online, or with a smartphone app.
This is one of the best things you can do to prepare for Mass. Sometimes you’ll notice connections among the readings, especially the first reading and the Gospel. If you do it consistently, week after week, you might even start to notice connections in the readings from one week to the next.
For instance, in the Gospel today, the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard who kill the landowner’s servants and finally even his son, Jesus is thinking of the first reading from Isaiah, the song of the vineyard that produces wild grapes.
But this is also the third Sunday in a row in which Jesus tells a parable that involves workers in a vineyard. Two weeks ago we heard the one about the workers in the vineyard with the generous landowner who gives all the workers the full day’s wages, even if they only worked an hour. Last week it was the one about the man with two sons whom he asks to work in the vineyard; one says no but changes his mind, and the other says yes but doesn’t go.
You can’t always get what you want (when you want it)
The image of working in a field runs through a number of Jesus’ parables. Back in July we heard three others: the great parable of the sower and the seed and the four types of soil; the one about the wheat and the weeds sown by an enemy; and then a surprise, the worker in a field who discovers buried treasure.
And there’s one other parable, which we last heard in February, maybe the greatest of all Jesus’ parables: the Prodigal Son, which ends with the older brother out in the field, slaving away for his father, angry at the celebration for his younger brother’s homecoming.
This imagery of working in a field, working for a harvest, spoke loud and clear to the people of Jesus’ day. Not so much to us. I don’t suppose many of us have ever worked on a farm. Maybe some of us have done some gardening.
We live in a culture of instant gratification. Point and click. Streaming video, binge watching, next day delivery from Amazon.com. We’re used to getting what we want when we want it.
But some things take time, sustained effort over time. You can’t grow a garden in a week. If a person wants to get in shape, they can’t do it in a week, or by going to the gym once a week.
Prayer — daily prayer, sustained prayer — is opening your heart to God’s love like sunlight falling on a patch of land, warming the soil and the seeds hidden below, calling forth the life within them. That takes time. And then there are the weeds to be pulled out, the bad habits we need to break, the amending of our lives to which our Lady of Fatima calls us.
Servants and sons
How we go about this work, how much we care about it, depends very much on what we think we’re working for: for payment or for a harvest. Notice that there are two kinds of people working in those fields in Jesus’ stories. Some are tenants, hired workers, servants; others are sons.
When the prodigal son came to his senses, he said, “In my father’s house there are servants eating better than I am. I will go to my father and say, ‘Treat me as your servant; I am not worthy to be called your son.’” Of course the father was having none of that.
But in the end the angry older brother said to the father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you, and you never even gave me a young goat to have a feast with my friends.” In his mind, he’s slaving away for his father. He thinks of himself as a servant working for someone else! The father says, “Son, everything I have is yours. I never gave you a goat? Look around. All of this is yours!”
On one level, the field you work in, the garden you tend, is your soul. The reward isn’t something you get, it’s something you become, just like working to get in shape.
On another level, the field, the vineyard, is the house of Israel, God’s house, God’s kingdom. We’re working amid ruins to build God’s kingdom on earth, and God’s kingdom is our home.
Sons in the Son
When Jesus taught, people saw a rabbi, perhaps a prophet — but Jesus said and did things that no other prophet had done. For one thing, there was the way he talked about God: “My Father.” It was disturbing to his Jewish listeners, understandably so. His Father? Who does he think he is?! He’s making himself equal to God! Which is exactly right.
But then our Lord did something amazing, something that should make us catch our breath in awe every time if we weren’t numbed by familiarity. Every week in Mass, we hear the words, “At the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say, ‘Our Father.’”
“Our Father.” Who do we think we are?! We are dust and ashes! Jesus is God’s Son; he is “begotten, not made,” as we’ll confess in the Creed very soon. We are made, not begotten! God is our Maker, not our Father — not our Father as he is Jesus’ Father. We have no natural right to think of ourselves as anything other than God’s property, his servants, his slaves. No natural right.
But the Son of God — begotten, not made — came to us and said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father.’” Do you see what this means? He shares his divine Sonship with us. He takes us as adopted brothers, shares with us his heavenly Father. And also his earthly mother, the Blessed Virgin.
To presume to call God “Our Father” without Jesus’ teaching would be like what the wicked tenants in the Gospel do: trying to seize what belongs to the son, the heir, and make it their own by force.
Thinking like servants
On the other hand, sometimes we’re more like the older brother angrily slaving away in the field, thinking of himself as a servant and not a son, an heir.
Do we come to Mass on Sunday because it’s a rule, an obligation, on pain of mortal sin? Or do we come because we want to be here, need to be here?
When we resist temptation, try to break bad habits, do we do it reluctantly, thinking “I really don’t want to confess that again,” or thinking about punishment in the life to come? Or do we think “I’ll feel so much better without this hanging over me”? Do we think “I want to be like Jesus”?
Here’s a question for you: When I suggested reading through the Mass readings at home, for those of you who aren’t doing it already, did you think to yourself, “I should do that — I want to do that”? Or did you feel like I was giving you homework?
Are we thinking like God’s servants or are we thinking like his sons and daughters?
Year of the Deacon
I am a servant. That’s what it means to be a deacon. The word “deacon” means servant. Today, October 8, marks the beginning of a celebratory Year of the Deacon in our archdiocese of Newark, called for by Cardinal Tobin to mark the 50th anniversary, next year in 2018, of the reestablishment of the permanent diaconate back in 1968.
Cardinal Tobin is a bishop. A bishop is an overseer, a shepherd, and to be a shepherd to God’s people is a fearful thing. Saint Augustine, also a bishop, once wrote:
What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me; for you, I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation.
For you, I am a deacon, a servant, and I love my ministry. But I have another title that means far more to me — that is the reason I’m here — a title I share with all of you. As a deacon, I’m a servant, but as a Christian, I’m a son, as are we all sons and daughters of our Father.
Catch your breath in awe as we dare to call God our Father. And then go forth when the Mass is ended: amend your lives, pray, and work to build the kingdom, not like servants, but like the sons and daughters you are.
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