Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 24 September 2017
Is 55:6-8; Phil 1:20-24, 27; Mt 20:1-16
Si Comprehendis Deus, Non Est Deus
How’s your Latin?
These words from the great St. Augustine offer a very important reminder:
Si Comprehendis Deus, Non Est Deus;
If you understand God, it is not God.
It’s one of the most basic aspects of the Church’s teaching
of the Doctrine of God.
For a person to say that they understand him,
that they have grasped the mystery of the person and working
of the triune Godhead
is akin to that person saying,
“I am delusional and disconnected from reality and I’m also lying.”
Maybe that’s a little strong.
But you get the point.
It is not possible to understand the
mind and working and ways of God.
We heard that from Isaiah in the first reading today:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
In attempt to explain the nature and ways of God,
the Church again adopts the teaching of St. Augustine
who described God as totaliter aliter non alius,
and interior intimo meo;
Sorry, I forgot you said your Latin stinks.
Augustine described God as one who is
totally other and yet not other at all.
He is totally above us in every way,
and yet completely imminent, close to us.
He is closer to me than I am to myself.
Although he is so close to us,
he often seems very far away
and what he’s up to isn’t always completely clear to us.
In the same way that hindsight is 20/20
with breakups, test questions, and our stupid purchases on Amazon,
we often see the ways that God was present and working
only by looking in the rearview mirror.
Even so, the lack of clarity about the ways that God is working
can cause confusion and angst as we go about our daily lives.
And answers like the one given in The Blues Brothers by
Mother Mary Stigmata,
“the Lord works in mysterious ways, Elwood”
are not very consoling.
One of the places where we experience this confusion
is when we observe the goodness of God
in the lives of those around us,
especially when he seems to have forgotten about us.
Why does so-and-so get the new job or the better life or the whatever
while I’m over here suffering?
This is precisely the situation presented by Jesus
in the Parable of the Landowner in the Gospel today.
The landowner hires workers, because he’s the landowner
and hiring workers is his to do.
He sets the wage for the workers at one denarius,
“the usual daily wage,”
which he does because he is the landowner
and setting the usual daily wage is his to do.
The trouble comes at the end of the workday
when the workers who had been there all day
feel cheated when the ones who’d only worked an hour
made the same amount of money.
Calm and collected, the landowner responds,
“Hey, you agreed to the wage.
What difference does it make what I do with what’s mine?
Take what is yours and go.”
But before he goes away, the landowner asks a question:
“Are you envious because I am generous?”
I have been noticing lately that a lot of the
people I dislike most, the people who really drive me crazy,
especially in the seminary,
are the people who evoke envy in me.
I like to think that I’m mad at them for some just reason,
or that I’m better than them and that their fortune won’t last,
but really I am just full of envy.
Envy is a vice; it is one of the seven deadly sins,
and is so because it is truly a deadly, evil thing.
Merriam-Webster defines envy as a
“painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another
joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.”
We all know what it is like to painfully resent someone or something.
It’s the feeling I get when I see the guy next to me in the gym benching 5000 pounds
while I am practically having an asthma attack on the recumbent bike.
It’s the feeling when I get a 98 on an exam
and the other guy gets a 99.
Why can’t I be like them? Why can’t I do what they do? Why am I like me?
Why, as Charlie Brown so often said, am I so blah?
Why did that worker, who’s been here for only an hour, make the same amount as me today?
The landowner is unjust; he’s unfair.
The passage in the Gospel today,
“are you envious because I am generous”
is actually a bad paraphrase of the original Greek.
The original text says:
“Is your eye evil because I am good?”
“The reference to the eye…reveals something about the psychology of envy.
Envy arises when a negative passion within me
distorts my way of seeing my neighbor…
I see him as I want to see him in order to justify myself…
Envy and every other reckless passion
make any kind of receptivity impossible.” (Merikakis)
And this impossibility of receptivity is the great danger of an envious life.
This is because our God is a giver; it is all he knows how to do.
“God is never involved in taking,” (Keating)
not, anyway, merely for the sake of taking.
Anytime we faced with loss,
or if we receive what we perceive to be “less” than what we are owed by God,
our eye has become evil, and our image of reality is distorted.
God is never involved in taking; he is only a giver.
Thus focusing only on what seems to have been taken away
is an unfortunate distraction from what is being given to us.
That’s why the landowner telling the worker to
“take what is yours and go” is so terrible.
“In the context of the parable, this…pronouncement…
is a sentence of exclusion from the Kingdom [of heaven].
Because of his envious attitude, impelling him to rebellion,
the grumbler is condemned to being perpetually alone
with nothing but what is his.” (Merikakis)
The envious heart,
the heart that is closed to grace and the
generosity of God is, necessarily,
a lonely heart.
Every one of us is a little bit landowner,
generous and open and free and good;
and every one of us is a little bit worker,
bitter and closed and captive and sad.
We believe we are forced, in our sinfulness and poverty,
to sit alone forever in the dark places of our hearts
ruminating over and over again those times of sin and pain
that each one of us has experienced,
or are perhaps experiencing even now.
But I urge you, brothers and sisters,
to be courageous in the face of these trials.
Do not look at the good fortune of your neighbor
and count yourself somehow “less blessed” or worse off than them;
remember the words of the prophet Isaiah and Mother Stigmata
and take them to heart.
We don’t know what God is up to,
but we must trust that, like the landowner,
he is faithfully and competently going about the things
that are his to do.
That he is providing for you, walking with you, and loving you.
That even in the pain of what seems to be lost,
there are profound and beautiful gifts being given.
So live your life “seek[ing] the Lord while he may be found”,
keep your eyes peeled for the good things he’s giving to you,
and use them to “conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
Open our hearts, Lord God,
that we may hear the words of your Son.
Open our eyes, Lord God,
that we may see the good gifts of your love.
Open our hearts, Lord God,
that we may be free to receive your love,
and be free to pass it on to everyone. Amen.