Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Reward Will Be the Same, But People’s Capacity to Enjoy the Reward Will Be Different!

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 18, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 55: 6-9; Matthew 20: 1-16a.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2011]

The reward will be the same, but people’s capacity to enjoy the reward will be different.

This is a very important truth for us to keep in mind when we’re trying to understand the parable we just heard from Matthew 20, this well-known story of the workers in the vineyard.

First of all, however, we need to make a crucial distinction: we need to distinguish between the primary meaning of this parable as it was told by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, and the legitimate—but secondary—application of the parable that people very often make.

The primary meaning of this story is that Gentiles, through God’s saving grace, have the same opportunity to go to heaven that Jews have.  That’s it, in a nutshell.  Here’s how one Bible commentary explains it:

This parable is addressed to the Jewish people, whom God called at an early hour, centuries ago.  Now the Gentiles are also being called—with an equal right to form part of a new people of God, the Church.  In both cases it is a matter of a gratuitous, unmerited, invitation; therefore, those who were the ‘first’ to receive the call have no grounds for complaining when God calls the ‘last’ and gives them the same reward. . . . Jesus leaves no doubt that although he calls us to follow different ways, all receive the same reward—heaven.”  (Navarre Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, page 173.)

This brings us to the secondary application of the story, which is where people often get confused.  Let me frame the issue in this way: From the way the story is told, it seems that non-believers who convert and get baptized on their deathbeds—and lapsed Catholics who make a good and sincere confession right before they die—get the best of both worlds (so to speak).  They live their entire lives doing what they want and having a good old time, but in the end they get the same heavenly reward that someone like Mother Teresa gets!

So people read this text and say, “Why should I make the effort to know, love and serve God every day?  Why should I try to be holy and obedient to the Lord in all things?  Why should I fight the good fight and run the race and keep the faith?  What difference does it make?  According to what Jesus says here I can do whatever I want for my entire life, convert at the end, and I’ll get the same reward as the great saints who served God faithfully for their entire lives!”

Ah yes, but these good people are forgetting one thing—one very important thing; as I said a few moments ago, the reward will be the same, but people’s capacity to enjoy the reward will be different.

Everyone, in other words, who dies in the state of grace will eventually get into the eternal kingdom of God—even if their conversion (or re-version to Christ) happened at the “11th hour” of their life.  So the “reward” of every saved person will be the same: heaven.  But the capacity of a particular person—me, for example, to experience God and his blessings in the kingdom will be greater or lesser, depending on the level of holiness I attained during my earthly life.

Jesus indicated this when he talked about “the least” and “the greatest” in the kingdom of heaven, and when he spoke about the seat at his right hand and the seat at his left hand in his Father’s kingdom.  We also see an indication of it in John 14, where our Lord said, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

St. Augustine described this situation by, in effect, comparing our souls to different sized containers.  Pope Benedict alludes to this idea of Augustine in one of his encyclicals when he writes: “Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.  [As St. Augustine says,] ‘By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him].’”  (Spe Salvi, n. 33)

By following the advice that Isaiah gives us in today’s first reading and seeking the Lord faithfully through prayer and through the sacraments; by living in faith and performing acts of selfless charity; by growing closer to Jesus Christ and becoming more like him—that is to say, by growing in holiness each day—we increase our capacity for God.  That’s Augustine’s point here.

This means that someone who has a conversion on his deathbed will probably have a much smaller capacity for God in heaven than a great saint like Pius X—or even compared to an ordinary Christian who grew in faith and in holiness for many years on earth.

The person who has a conversion at the end of his life will probably have a capacity for God in heaven that’s the size of a thimble.  Comparatively speaking, the ordinary, holy Christian will have a capacity for God that’s the size of a pint or quart; whereas the great saints of the Church like Pius X and Mother Teresa will be like gallons!

Now the interesting thing is, in heaven everyone will be full: everyone will be full of God and his grace!  But the fullness experienced by the thimble-sized soul will be a lot different than the fullness experienced by the gallon-sized soul of the saint! 

So yes, the reward will be the same, but people’s capacity to enjoy the reward will be different.

I was trying to think of another earthly analogy that I could use to conclude my homily today and drive home this point, and what came to me was the following example:

Imagine two men, John and Bill, who work for the same company.  One day the boss calls them into his office and says, “Gentlemen, you’ve done excellent work lately, and to show my appreciation I’m going to give you my two tickets to this Sunday’s Patriots’ game.  I’m going out of town this weekend, so I can’t use them.  Here they are.  Enjoy!—they’re great seats, on the 50 yard line, ten rows up.”

John and Bill say, “Thank you very much, sir!” and they immediately make plans to go to the game.

Here now is a little essential background information on these two men:

John has been a Patriots’ fan for as long as he can remember—ever since he was a little boy 50 years ago.  He’s been loyal to the team in good times and in bad—which includes the mid-1960s, when the Patriots were one of the worst teams in the old AFL.  He watches every game; he knows the statistics of Tom Brady and all the key players; he has Patriots memorabilia all over his house!

Bill also is a Patriots’ fan—although he’s only been one for a couple of years.  One reason for that is that he’s originally from Australia, where “football” means something very different than it does here in the United States.  In fact, he’s still learning about our game.  For example, the last time he watched a game of American football on television, the punter punted the ball out of the end zone and Bill thought the man had just kicked a field goal!

So I ask you, in all likelihood which of these two men will enjoy Sunday’s Patriots’ game more?  Which one will have the capacity—the ability—to enjoy it more?

The answer, of course, is John.  Because John has been a faithful follower of the Pats for so many years; because he knows the game of football so well and has persevered with his team through thick and thin, HIS CAPACITY TO ENJOY THIS REWARD FROM HIS BOSS WILL BE MUCH, MUCH GREATER THAN BILL’S, since Bill barely knows what an American football is!

But notice—both men will have the same experience—the exact same experience; both will have the same reward from their boss—a free ticket to this game.  

Their reward will be the same, but their capacity to enjoy the reward will be different!

And so it will be for souls in heaven.