Arts and Culture

Surrendering to God Can Take a Lifetime

I CANNOT recall the first time I heard the parable told by Jesus about the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16a). My guess is that my initial reaction was that it was not fair that those who spent the entire day working did not receive higher wages than those who were hired at the last hour. I probably thought that those who worked many more hours were not treated justly.

Actually as I am writing this, I think that as a young parish priest many years ago, I may have had discussions with parishioners about this. The point of the parable is not about labor relations or about what should guide employers when they hire people. Rather, the parable is about God’s love for us. Jesus is saying that His heavenly Father showers graces and blessings abundantly. God’s justice is God’s mercy, and God’s love for us is infinite. We should not try to measure God’s love by human standards. God’s generosity is always more than we can imagine.

The sense of fair play is taught to us early and often. One of my nieces, when she was four or five years old, had to be instructed frequently by her mother that she should share with her sister and others when she was playing with toys. One day, in response to her mother’s admonition that she should share, my niece said to her mother, “But I don’t like to share!” I thought that was an extraordinary articulation for a child to make about the existence of original sin. Out of the mouths of babes!

I believe that parable can challenge consciences. I know it challenges mine. Those of us who seem to take our Catholic faith seriously – for example, celebrate the sacraments regularly – can half consciously think that we are better, holier or closer to God, than those Catholics who almost never celebrate the sacraments. This can be disastrous as we try to allow the Holy Spirit to deepen our relationship with Christ and the Father. Our pride can act as a barrier against the Spirit’s presence and loving activity.

In relation to Jesus’ parable, I recall a question that was raised by my classmates in school. Someone would suggest that it was unfair that someone who was a daily communicant might die suddenly without the presence of a priest, and some mafia leader, who may have ordered the murder of many, might be shot in the street and stay alive long enough for a priest to hear his confession and anoint him. A classmate who offered the comment might say something such as, “All the mafia king has to do is say ‘I am sorry’ and he enters heaven just like the daily communicant.”

I think the statement deserves some comment. First of all, it is not saying the words, “I am sorry,” that will gain the mafia leader, or indeed anyone, salvation. We can get a parakeet or a parrot to say those words. The person has to be sorry and that may not be easy for someone who has spent his life arranging the murders of others.

More importantly, I think the difficulty is the presumption that by receiving the Eucharist or leading a moral life, we are doing God a favor. It is the other way around: God is doing us a favor. Any good action we perform requires the presence of the Holy Spirit. A simple action like blessing myself, if it is a real prayer, is possible because of the Holy Spirit.

Thinking about this parable brings to mind one of my favorite films, “Angels With Dirty Faces,” which I show to students in my course on philosophy and film at St. John’s University. In the film, Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) has killed many innocent people, but is the idol of teenage boys with whom Rocky’s friend, Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien), is working. Rocky is sentenced to death in the electric chair, and Father Connolly visits him on the night he will be executed. Father Connolly asks Rocky to act as though he is afraid to die when he reaches the electric chair so that the teenage boys will hate his memory and not turn out like him. Rocky says he won’t because it is too much to ask, that his friend is asking him to give up the last thing he has left: his reputation.

My point in mentioning the film is that each of us, even though we are not on death row, is asked to surrender to God. It may take a lifetime, but the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives will make our surrender possible.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).

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