Sunday, September 21, 2008

Equality: What It Means, and What It Doesn’t Mean

St. Maximilian Kolbe

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 21, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 20: 1-16a.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2008]

It’s not fair, is it?

From a purely human perspective, the people who worked a full day in the hot sun were treated unfairly by this landowner, who gave the very same pay to the people he hired at 5 o’clock in the afternoon—who ended up working for only one hour!

But, of course, we can never look at this or any other parable that Jesus told from “a purely human perspective.” Although even on that level it’s a great story, isn’t it?—because it reminds us of the simple truth that life is not fair! Hard working people sometimes suffer and experience great hardships; lazy people sometimes prosper and have it relatively easy.

But the primary point of the parable is NOT about the fairness or unfairness of life! The primary point concerns the generosity of God, who makes heaven possible to Gentiles like us, and to those who come to him in repentance even at the very end of their time on this earth.

This means that, in a certain sense, WE GENTILES are just like those 5 o’clock workers! The Hebrews—the Jews—on the other hand, are just like the workers hired at the beginning of the day. Remember, the Hebrews were called by God centuries before we were! But now we are also called; consequently we have just as much right as they do to become members of the Church—and an equal possibility of attaining eternal salvation through Jesus Christ.

Now that you realize that those 5 o’clock workers symbolize people like us, I’ll bet the landowner doesn’t seem so unfair anymore, does he?

You could say that this parable is ultimately about EQUALITY: It teaches us that God loves all people equally; it teaches us that we all have an equal dignity in God’s eyes as human beings created in his image and likeness, and it teaches us that we all have an equal opportunity to go to heaven by the grace of Jesus Christ—even if our conversion happens at the final moment of our life. It also teaches that we have an equal obligation to give God our complete obedience and service. We are all called to be workers in his vineyard.

What the parable does NOT teach is that everything else in life is supposed to be equal!

I mention this because there are some who seem to believe that this gospel teaches that everyone on earth is supposed to have the same amount of everything—including money and material possessions.

But that’s not true! Yes, the Catechism, based on the teaching of Jesus, does condemn materialism and greed and what it calls “excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples,” but this doesn’t mean that it’s the will of God that those who have a lot should be taxed or robbed into poverty!

I recently came across a great writing of St. Maximilian Kolbe on this very subject. Listen to St. Maximilian’s words. If you’re like me, you’ll react by saying, “Wow, he’s right. That makes perfect sense!”

He wrote:

“Let us imagine that one day all the inhabitants of the world would assemble and put into effect this sharing of all goods; and that in fact each person, granted that the world is very big, received an exactly equal portion of the wealth existing on earth.

“Then what? That very evening one man might say, ‘Today I worked hard: now I am going to take rest.’ Another might state, ‘I understand this sharing of goods well; so let’s drink and celebrate such an extraordinary happening.’ On the other hand, another might say, ‘Now I am going to set to work with a will so as to reap the greatest benefit I can from what I have received.’ And so, starting on the next day, the first man would have only the amount given him; the second would have less, and the third would have increased his.

“Then what do we do? Start redistributing the wealth all over again?

“Even if everybody began to work right away with all his might and at the same time, the results would not be identical for all. There are, in fact, different kinds of work which are unequally productive; nor do all workers enjoy the same identical capacities. This leads to a diversity of results achieved, and consequently to differences in people’s profits.”

St. Maximilian was right. Here on earth, not everyone will be equal in every way.

But that’s also the way it will be in heaven!

Did you realize that?

Yes, everyone has the potential to go to heaven: even if they’re not Jewish, and even if they come to Jesus in repentance on their deathbeds—at “the 5 o’clock hour,” so to speak, of their lives. We learn that, as I said earlier, in this parable.

But this doesn’t mean that everyone’s experience of God in heaven will be exactly the same! In heaven, not everyone will be “equal” in that sense. We know this because Jesus often spoke of “the least” and “the greatest” in the kingdom of his Father.

Those two terms, “least” and “greatest” imply a difference in people’s status—and in their experience.

The key here, as usual, is HOLINESS: the holier a person is when he leaves this life, the greater his capacity will be to experience God in heaven—which is why it’s not good to wait until your deathbed to repent!

May this be all the motivation we need to “work” for holiness every day: to pray often, to get to Mass at least weekly, to get to Confession regularly, to forgive everyone in our lives, and to be charitable to the poor and the needy, according to the means God has given us.