Sunday, September 28, 2014

It’s Not About Where You Start, It’s About Where You Finish!

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 28, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 18: 25-28; Matthew 21: 28-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2014]

It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you finish.

That’s the message that I believe the Lord has for us today in these Scripture readings—and especially in this gospel passage from Matthew 21.

This is a spiritual truth, incidentally, that applies to many areas of life.

For example, why is it that sports movies like “Rocky” and “Rudy” and “Hoosiers” (the basketball film) are so appealing?  Why do people like them so much?

It’s because the main characters all “finish” in a better place than they “start”.

Which, by the way, is what I’m counting on my Green Bay Packers to do this year, because they certainly haven’t started very well!

But that’s another story.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells us a parable about two sons.  The first starts in disobedience, but he ends up finishing in obedience (“A man had two sons.  He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’  He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went.”); the second son, on the other hand, starts off in obedience, but he ends up finishing in disobedience (“The man came to the other son and gave him the same order.  He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.”).

Jesus told this story to the chief priests and elders of the people to warn them that even though they had started off in faithfulness to God by accepting the truth the Lord had revealed through Moses, they were in danger of eventually finishing in hell, because they were rejecting him—and because they had already rejected his predecessor, John the Baptist!  Whereas many tax collectors, prostitutes and other people who had started off in serious sin (at the beginning of John’s ministry) were now on their way to finishing in the Lord’s eternal and glorious kingdom!

It’s not about where you start, it’s about where you finish.

This is the same message we encounter in today’s first reading from Ezekiel 18, where the prophet says (and here I’m paraphrasing his words): “If a person who starts off living a virtuous life turns away from his virtue and sins seriously—and he remains in that spiritual condition—he will lose his soul.  But if that same person (or anyone else in the state of mortal sin) turns away from that sin—and finishes his life in the state of grace—he will be saved for all eternity!  He shall surely live, he shall not die.”

Now some of you may be thinking, “Thank you, Father Ray, but all of this is quite clear and quite obvious!”

To which I would respond, “Well, it might be clear and obvious to you, but it’s definitely NOT clear and obvious to a lot of other people!”

There are many in our world right now (and even many in the Church!) who believe that everyone (with the possible exception of a few bad guys like Hitler and Stalin) will finish in the kingdom, regardless of what sins they have on their souls when they finish their earthly lives.

According to Jesus, that’s a mistaken idea that can literally have eternal consequences.

But the denial of this truth about starting and finishing can also affect us in other ways.  For example, why do so many people take their own lives these days?  Why do so many despair?

It’s ultimately because they don’t believe they can finish in a better place (emotionally and spiritually) than they’re starting in at the present moment!

So everything appears hopeless—even though it isn’t.

Here’s a lie that’s straight out of the pit of hell: “You can’t possibly finish in a better place than you’re starting in right now.”

Satan whispers that lie into the ears of those who are on the verge of despair.  He whispers it into the ears of women who have had abortions; he whispers it into the ears of all those who have committed serious sins that they regret and are deeply ashamed of.

And the tragedy is that many of the men and women in these situations believe the devil!

That’s why some of them stay away from confession—and stop praying—and give up the practice of their Catholic faith. 

They think, “Well, what’s the use?  I am what I am; I’ve done what I’ve done—and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

I ask you, my brothers and sisters, what would have happened to Saul of Tarsus if he had thought that about himself after Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and made him aware of his sins?

I know one thing for sure: he never would have become Saint Paul!

What would have happened to Augustine, the womanizer and playboy, if he had thought that about himself and his sinful situation?

I’m not exactly sure, but I can guarantee you that he never would have become Saint Augustine!

Like the first son in the story, Saul and Augustine understood that even though they had started in deep sin they could finish somewhere else—somewhere a lot better!

I mention all this today, my brothers and sisters, because, when you stop and think about it, at this precise moment we’re all starting the rest of our lives here on this earth.  As the old saying goes, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

And we’re all starting this journey from different places.  We each have our own set of fears and character flaws—and sins.  Some of us may be starting with mortal sins and some very deep regrets.

Well, unfortunately, we can’t control where we’re starting from—because we can’t change the past.

But by the grace of God we can control where we finish—even if we’re starting from a very bad place!

And the key to doing that is, believe it or not, the virtue of humility.

The last stanza of today’s responsorial psalm (psalm 25) reads: “Good and upright is the Lord; thus he shows sinners the way.  He guides the humble to justice, and teaches the humble his way.”

The first son in this parable finished well because he was humble.  THAT was the reason!

Here we have to read between the lines a little bit.

Why did he change his mind and go into the vineyard to work?

It’s because he was wrong and because he was humble enough to admit that to himself!

At some point after he left his dad, he obviously thought to himself, “You know what?—you were wrong to say what you said to your Father today!  You should go and do what he told you to do.”

That’s humility.

It takes humility to admit you’re wrong.  It takes humility to acknowledge that you’ve sinned.  It takes humility to go before a priest in a confessional and honestly admit to him the evil you’ve done and the good you haven’t done.

Humility is a very powerful virtue—one that we should pray for every day; because it’s the virtue that can take a person from the worst starting point imaginable, to the place where we all want to finish.

Which is great news, my brothers and sisters, because, when all is said and done, where we started from won’t matter at all.

But where we finish will matter—FOREVER!