Sunday, October 02, 2005

What God Deserves

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 2, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 21: 33-43.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2005]


3 letters that stand for something we’d rather not have in our relationships with other people. After all, no one enjoys being in debt.

But even if we have no balance on any of our credit cards at the present time (a nice thought, isn’t it?), and no mortgage on our house, and no remaining car payments left on our current vehicle—even if we have no human debts whatsoever—we do still have one very big IOU that we need to recognize and deal with: the one we owe to God!

This is a truth that comes through in the parable we just heard from Matthew 21.

First, a little background on the story:

When Jesus told this parable during his earthly ministry, he was directing his message toward the chief priests and the Pharisees of his time—although the story actually involved the entire history of Israel in the Old Testament.

Over the centuries God (symbolized here by the vineyard owner) had entrusted the care of his people (his vineyard) to certain religious leaders—like the chief priests and the Pharisees. (These leaders are represented by the “tenants” in the parable.) It was their responsibility to instruct the people in the truth, and to lead them by example, so that they would bring forth good fruit: holiness, righteousness, charity, etc. And periodically God would send special servants to them (namely, the prophets) in order to, in a certain sense, “collect the fruit”—fruit that these religious leaders OWED to the Lord!

But very often these authorities (who weren’t teaching the truth) attacked the prophets: some, as it says here, they beat, others they stoned, and still others they had killed.

Finally the owner decided to send his own son to them, thinking “they will certainly respect him.” Obviously, the son—who is killed in the story out of jealousy and greed—represents Jesus, who would soon be killed in reality.

The end of the parable prophesies the beginning of the Church, the new Israel—which will be composed, Jesus indicates, of men and women who will take seriously the call to give God good fruit—the good fruit that he deserves!

Now that’s the point that stood out to me as I prayed over this story in preparation for this homily. Notice, the good fruit the religious leaders of Israel were supposed to help people produce in their lives—this good fruit is not presented in the story as some kind of “free will offering.”

It’s presented as an obligation! It was, in a very real sense, their IOU to the owner!

Note the wording in the parable: “When vintage time drew near, he [i.e., the vineyard owner] sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.” The produce was clearly something they owed! And again, later on in the story: “He [once again, the vineyard owner] will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times [in other words, who will give him what he deserves].”

God certainly wants us to love him and serve him freely and willingly (and hopefully we do!): but, from another perspective—equally as valid—it is proper to say that we, his creatures, owe him!

We owe him our love and our obedience and our service!

And this IOU we have toward the Lord has very practical implications for our daily lives.

Let me share a few of them with you this morning.

One of the things we owe God on the practical level is our best effort. Have you ever thought of that before? We owe the Lord our very best effort—which, incidentally, includes when we come to Mass! In fact, I would say that in some sense it starts here!

I’ve had people say to me, “Does it really matter that I come to Mass late every week (or almost every week)? Isn’t it good enough that I’m here?”

No, it’s not.


Because God deserves your best effort—and mine! Barring some unforeseen delay that could not be avoided, he deserves our best effort to be here on time! And he’s deserving of our attendance here until the end!

Others say, “Why can’t I wear sloppy or revealing clothes when I come to church? Does God really care what I wear?”

That, my brothers and sisters, is the wrong question! The right question is, “Should I care about what I’m wearing when I’m on my way to see the King of kings and the Lord of lords? Does he deserve clean, modest clothes and a well-groomed appearance?”

I think he does.

Here’s something else God deserves: He deserves some quality time from us every day in prayer. Now if we really consider the Lord to be our best friend, it shouldn’t be any burden at all to give him what he deserves in this regard!

I notice my 15-year-old nephew Nicholas can’t wait to talk to his girlfriend on the phone at some point during the day. No one has to prod him to do it, because he cares about her.

In a similar way, if we really love God, it shouldn’t be a problem to give him—in addition to attendance at Sunday Mass—15 minutes or more of personal prayer time during the course of any given day, and perhaps also a Holy Hour once a week.

That should be easy.

God also deserves the proper development of our gifts. This is one reason why you young people should be studying hard and applying yourselves in school! God has given us all the talents and abilities we possess. We owe it to him to use and develop these gifts for the good of our families and for the good of society at large. There’s an old saying, “What you have is God’s gift to you; what you do with it all is your gift to God.”

But it’s a gift that he deserves!

And finally, here’s one that many of our Protestant brothers and sisters understand a lot better than some of us Catholics do: Under normal circumstances, God deserves at least 10% of our gross income!

This practice is known as “tithing,” and it was a “given” in Old Testament times. For example, in the Book of Sirach it says, “In generous spirit pay homage to the Lord, be not sparing of freewill gifts. With each contribution show a cheerful countenance, and pay your tithes in a spirit of joy. Give to the Most High as he has given to you, generously, according to your means.” (Sirach 35: 7-9)

The idea was that God, who is the ultimate source of all we have and are, deserves the first 10% of the fruits of our labor. This teaching, incidentally, was never officially abolished either by Jesus or by his Church—consequently I and many others would say that it should still be a guideline for us today in our charitable giving. In fact, the New Testament encourages even greater generosity on the part of Christians (of course, according to one’s means). Consider, for example, the generosity of the earliest followers of Christ. In the Book of Acts it says, “Those who believed shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, dividing everything on the basis of each one’s need.”

Those early Christians lived in a different culture and under a different economic system than we do right now. Hence, it isn’t necessary for us to imitate them exactly by selling everything we have. However, the New Testament does challenge us to embrace their attitude of selfless, charitable giving.

Besides, God deserves it!

And one little footnote concerning this practice: A parishioner told me once about a priest who gave a homily on tithing a couple of years ago. This priest happened to live near a gambling establishment, and in his homily he told his parishioners that they had an obligation to tithe on whatever amount they gambled! So, if they gambled $1,000, they were obliged (at least in his mind) to give $100 to some charitable cause.

Personally, I like that idea! I throw it out today for your prayerful consideration.

And remember, you can’t out-give God, as my friend John Ahern would say. Those who tithe will typically tell you that they have never been in want, and that their needs have always been met.

Such is one of the temporal blessings of tithing. But there are others also, which are not of this world. I mentioned my friend John Ahern a moment ago. John is a successful businessman from Maryland, who probably gives away about 20% of his gross income. I knew he did this, and so in the early 1990s I asked him to remember me and my work with youth when he was doing his tithing, and at Christmas that year he sent me a check for $10,000! We used that money to start bringing teens to Steubenville, and for other activities aimed at converting young people.

On Judgment Day, I believe that John and his wife Peggy will be greatly rewarded for helping bring many teenagers here in Westerly to Christ—and even a few into the priesthood and religious life: people they didn’t even know during their lives on this earth.

Which brings me to the thought I’ll leave you with: When we give God what he deserves in terms of our treasure, our time, our prayer, our talent, and our best effort, he doesn’t give us what we deserve—which is actually good news!

You see, when we give the Lord what he deserves, he turns around and he gives us what we don’t deserve! He gives us his strength; he gives us his peace; he gives us his joy; he gives us his mercy; and, in the end, he gives us his life—forever!