God Is Not Fair And Thank God For That

God Is Not Fair And Thank God For That

This Sunday’s Gospel reading challenges every one of us to come to a deeper appreciation of the generosity of our God. It seems like a universal reaction to complain when we have been deprived of something we think is owed to us. This sense of dissatisfaction with unfair circumstances can fuel the changes that make a more just world. But sometimes, this sense of dissatisfaction is misplaced and can even make the world less just, less merciful.

Imagine winning a million dollars in the lottery and griping that it’s not two million. Or receiving a miraculous cure of a terminal illness and complaining that it didn’t also cure a less serious condition. I remember going on pilgrimage to Rome for World Youth Day in 2000. It was hot the day we celebrated Mass with Pope John Paul II. A local beverage company handed out hundreds of thousands of bottles of water—for free. Someone in my group complained that it wasn’t cold water. Complaints like these fuel bitterness and envy.

Think about the complaint of the “early shift” laborers in the vineyard. They worked the whole day. I’m sure that working the whole day gave them the benefit of establishing a rhythm. Not only were they working longer, but they were likely more effective and efficient workers because of it.

Then come the “late shifters.” I bet they showed up, with an hour or two to go, and had no idea what they were doing. They likely caused more harm than good by messing up the efficient technique of the veterans. Some of them might have even voiced ideas on how to improve the system as if they knew what they were talking about! And in the end, they got the same pay. The injustice of it all.

We may have a tendency to view our fellow vineyard workers in the same light. “They’re not as committed as I am,” we might say. Or, “They don’t give as much time, talent and treasure.” Or even, “They’re not as morally good as I am!” Yet all are given the same work of evangelizing and offered the same reward of eternal life.

The reality is that none of us deserves the opportunity to labor, nor do we deserve the generous reward. In reading this parable, we shouldn’t get too caught up in trying to identify whether we are early or latecomers. That might lead to comparison. Love doesn’t compare, it doesn’t weigh benefits, and it doesn’t hold back. This parable is an opportunity to stand back and marvel at the generosity of our God, who desires that all be saved and gives us each a role to play in His Divine plan.

The response to Jesus’ love is to look within and ask, “Lord, how can I give more?”

Saint Paul talks about his dilemma in the second reading. He desires an end to his labor in the vineyard, that he might live with Christ forever. But he also has a strong yearning to continue his mission of evangelizing, sharing the love of Jesus and the message of salvation with anyone who will listen. Keep in mind that Saint Paul was in prison when he wrote to the Philippians. His mind was not focused on receiving fair treatment, but on Jesus. For him, and for us, every soul brought to the vineyard and given a reward is a reason to celebrate with joy the undeserved, unmerited, and unconditional love of Jesus Christ.

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Prudence, Wheat, and Weeds

Prudence, Wheat, and Weeds

Patience is not necessarily tolerance. Tolerance is not necessarily love. I tolerate all sorts of things for different reasons. I tolerate snow because there’s nothing I can do about it (except maybe move to Arizona, but then I’d have a lot more tolerating to do). I tolerate traffic and long lines for the same reason. Because I’m powerless over those things. I tolerate uninformed opinions because I’ve learned that uninformed opinions aren’t uninformed by accident. We all have a tendency to start with conclusions and ignore evidence to the contrary. Besides that, who wants to argue constantly? I mean besides me. Tolerance is often necessary for the sake of peace and getting along. But tolerance is misguided when it is divorced from a much deeper and fuller virtue: Prudence.

Prudence is a virtue that gives us the ability to recognize what is to be pursued and what should be avoided. In the Catholic sense, prudence allows us to discern what is good and what is evil—we should pursue the good and be fiercely intolerant of evil. And there’s more to prudence than simply knowing what is good and what is evil. Prudence also advises the course we need to take in pursuit of good and avoidance of evil. We can’t do evil in pursuit of good, and we shouldn’t take actions which generate evil in pursuit of good. Even if the goal is good, we cannot cause suffering greater than the good to achieve the goal. It might be easier to see this in a concrete example.

It has been a lifelong dream of mine to own and operate an alpaca farm. And anyone who knows anything about alpaca husbandry understands that the greatest threat to a successful farm is alpaca thieves. My farm will come equipped with high voltage fences strong enough to kill any potential thief on the spot. Of course, the fence could also harm alpacas and innocent human beings, but it’s worth it because I have the good and noble goal of preventing alpaca pilfering.

It sounds goofy (I mean the defense system and not my lifelong dream), but it’s not so over-the-top. Consider actions like the War on Drugs. Think about how much suffering and violence came from the imprudent pursuit of a good and noble goal. We do it in our own lives too. Look at the absolute breakdown in civil discourse over issues of faith, morals, and politics. How many friendships have broken due to disagreement? How many families hold a grudging peace at best and, at worst, outright division over similar disagreements? But are we supposed to then simply say, “You have your opinion, I have mine. Let’s agree to disagree since there’s no way of knowing who’s right?” Well, no. There’s another way.

Jesus presents the other way in a parable. A farmer sowed wheat, but in the night his enemy came and sowed weeds. When both begin to grow the servants suggest pulling the weeds. But the farmer prudently tells them not to, because that would kill the wheat as well. Wait until the harvest and then have the harvesters pull the weeds to be burned and gather the wheat into the barn. Jesus goes on the explain the meaning, which He doesn’t always do. Whenever He explains the meaning I think the parable must be particularly important. The field is the world, this life. The wheat are the children of His Kingdom and the weeds are the children of the evil one—Satan. The harvesters are the angels, sent by Christ at the end of time to separate wheat from weed. What does this mean practically speaking? Separating people into two camps, good and evil, isn’t our job. Being children of the Kingdom is our job.

What does being children of the Kingdom mean in light of this Sunday’s readings? First, we have to understand that the weeds don’t represent evil people. There are no evil people. Thoughts, actions, attitudes, beliefs, biases, words—all of these can be evil. But a human person, made in the image of God, cannot. They can be under the influence of evil forces, but that makes them victims of the enemy, not the enemy themselves.

Second, make sure you are wheat. Be prudent. Before you decide whose actions are good and whose are evil, make sure you yourself know the difference and live it in your own life. I’ve been a weed at times, and I’ve been wheat at others. By grace, through prayer, scripture, and, above all, the Sacraments, I work with Christ to be wheat.

Third, we can’t make the mistake of thinking that patience and prudence (seen as tolerance) are a tacit acceptance of evil. If we love others as we should, we would be as intolerant of evil within them as we would cancer within them. We wouldn’t want a little cancer, but would want every trace of it eradicated. The same goes for evil. But it is unwise and imprudent to take an unmerciful approach and wield truth like a sledgehammer. This hinders love.

Finally, do we just sit around and disparage the weeds around us, waiting for the end of the age when we will finally be separated? No, that’s not loving, not prudent, and it’s very weed-like. We hope for conversion and show how to be children of the Kingdom by our joyful example. Above all, we pray. Nature cannot change weeds into wheat, but grace can. For nothing is impossible with God.

“Brothers and sisters:

The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;

for we do not know how to pray as we ought,

but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.

And the one who searches hearts

knows what is the intention of the Spirit,

because he intercedes for the holy ones

according to God’s will.”

                                    -Romans 8:26-27

And Heaven Meets Earth Like a Sloppy Wet Kiss

And Heaven Meets Earth Like a Sloppy Wet Kiss

I hate boogers. I have a pretty strong stomach. There are very few things that gross me out. Before I worked for the church I was an EMT at a private ambulance company. People would always ask what was the most disturbing or disgusting thing I had ever seen. Blood? No. Broken bones? Easy to handle. Burns? Nope. That disgusting distinction went to mucus and anything else that emerged from the nose. I’m getting sick just writing this.

I’ve noticed something about my son Caleb. His desire to give me kisses is in direct proportion to the amount of runny nose that has made its way to his mouth. I wish I were making this up. Dry and clean nose? Get away from me dad! Slimy, salty river of snot? You’ve never seen such an affectionate child. But you know what? Much to my surprise it doesn’t gross me out. I’ll take the gross kisses. After all, I love him. If love is stronger than death I have to believe it’s stronger than boogers. So when Caleb leans in for a kiss with a shiny upper lip, he gets a kiss. Then I wipe his face clean. But always love first, without delay, without condition. I’m compelled to. It’s never even a question.  What if I demanded a clean face first? That would place conditions on my love for him. “I love you, but only if…”

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Tax collectors are corrupt traitors to their people. Their faces are absolutely covered in snot. Zacchaeus knew this, but he also knew he needed Jesus, who had come to town. Zacchaeus raced ahead of the crowds and climbed into a sycamore tree to get a better view. And then Mercy was compelled to act. Mercy is what Love looks like when it meets brokenness, messiness and sin. Listen to Jesus’ words, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Zacchaeus steps out in faith, literally “goes out on a limb” for Christ and the response is immediate. Jesus must draw closer to Zacchaeus, quickly and without condition. Zacchaeus’ decision to repent of his sin and make amends for any dishonesty is not the cause of Jesus’ love, but the fruit that comes from it. His encounter with Jesus transforms him in an instant.

Jesus calls us to run to him quickly. He must come to dwell with us because He loves us. He wants me and you, snots and all, to know Him. By faith we go out on a limb like Zacchaeus and with the grace we receive through the sacraments “God makes us worthy of his calling.” I pray you have that same transformational encounter with God, who is love and mercy, in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

The Big Cuppers

The Big Cuppers

Does God love some people more than others? In one sense, no, He doesn’t. After all, God is love. When we love each other we are actually participating in God’s love. Because of this we can choose to participate in that love more or less or even not at all. But God is infinite and God is love. Saying God loves one person more than another makes no sense because His love is already infinite. Infinity plus one is still infinity.

On the other hand, God seems to make more of His infinite love available to some people. There are some people who feel a near constant awareness of God’s love for them and many who don’t. Saint Therese made an analogy to explain this. Even though she was talking about the different glories that await each of us in Heaven, I (hopefully with the Little Flower’s blessing) want to paraphrase her here. Imagine a large cup and next to it is a thimble. They’re both filled  to the brim with water. They hold different amounts but it would be impossible to add anything to either container. Our capacity to experience God’s love is like that. Some of us have big cups, some have thimbles. Some have oceans, some have eye droppers. But all are full. So what is the secret that the big cuppers hold?

I don’t think the secret is trying to get God to love you more. That’s impossible. Our list of accomplishments, merits, awards, talents, important jobs, good grades, the number of friends we have, big paychecks, good deeds—none of it can increase God’s love for us, which is already infinite. Jesus gives us the secret to having a greater capacity to be loved by Him with the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In the parable Jesus tells us about two men praying in the temple: a self-righteous Pharisee who thanks God for making him better than everyone else and a humble tax collector who asks God for mercy. The Pharisee falls short not just because he is judgmental and dismissive of the tax collector. If we get caught up on the “judge not” message alone we will miss something hugely important. Yes, the Pharisee is wrong to judge, but he misses the mark even further by thinking he has earned God’s love by his tithing, fasting and self-righteousness. He is completely blind to his unworthiness and closed off to mercy. We can often be like the Pharisee in this second sense. True, we tend not to judge the “tax collectors” in our lives because we are good and decent people. But we can fall into the trap of believing that everything is ok. That we don’t need Jesus’ mercy every hour of every day. That crying out to God is for other people, people with problems. Not us. We too can be closed off to mercy.

The tax collector, aware of his brokenness, is open to receive mercy. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” is the motto of the big cuppers. The saints (just a fancy word for big cuppers) all had in common a profound awareness of their own sin and brokenness. From the outside this can look like hand-wringing guilt, but nothing could be further from the truth. Declarations like “Lord I need You!” and “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” are the secret to experiencing the fullness of God’s love and the freedom from anxiety, abundant joy and peace that only Christ can give.