Sunday Word

God is generous to each and every one of us

Father Alfredo I. Hernandez, Vice Rector and Academic Dean of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach
9-20-2020
Is 55:6-9; Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Phil1:20C-24, 27A; Mt 20:1-16A

“That’s not fair!” This is a common response to the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt 20:1–16). No matter how Jesus tries to explain it, how can the workers who only spent an hour in the field get paid the same as those who worked all day long? Where’s the justice?

Yet as we read in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, God’s ways and thoughts are far beyond our ways and thoughts (Is 55:8). Among Jesus’s listeners and among the readers of Matthew’s Gospel there must have been some who were jealous of the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus had forgiven and brought into his group of disciples. But with his wonderful and amazing gaze, God is generous to each and every one of us. He does not want to leave anyone out. Even today, we can sometimes be jealous of those who experience deathbed conversions and seem to make it into heaven just the same as those who have struggled to live their whole lives in faithfulness.

What are we missing when we take this attitude? First, as Jesus clearly indicates, we’re missing the point that it’s up to God to give what he wills to all who come into his vineyard: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15) In the end, to allow God to be generous is to allow him to be generous to us as well—especially in his mercy towards us. I remember hearing a wise priest say once: “When I die, I’m not going to say to God, ‘Please be fair.’”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, describes the Church using many images. One of these images is relevant to our topic: “The Church is a cultivated field, the tillage of God…. That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly cultivator. Yet the true vine is Christ who gives life and fruitfulness to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ, without whom we can do nothing” (CCC #754; Lumen Gentium #6). When we think of the Church as the vineyard and Christ as the vine giving us life, the dynamic of this parable changes.

The complaining day laborers of this parable have been compared to the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:29–30). In both cases, the argument ends up being: “I’ve been working so hard, and your generosity to the other blockheads is unfair to me.” In both cases, the point the complainers miss is that working in the vineyard is good. It is a blessing to be working with and in Christ in the Church. There is a price, no doubt, and in the succeeding passage in Matthew, Jesus will predict his passion for the third time (Mt 20:17–19). But no one who joins Christ in the Kingdom will say that he or she wished to have spent less time in Christ’s vineyard on earth. Rather, he or she will realize that in Christ’s vineyard on earth one already begins to taste heaven.

A question to widows or widowers from long and happy marriages might help us. Let’s say you were married 60 years: if you were given a chance to say that you could have met your spouse 40 years later than in reality and you would have been just as happy for twenty years with him or her as you were in your last 20 years of marriage, would you ever forgo the first 40 years—even if there were tough moments along the way? Would you not rather choose more time together, even with challenges?

In today’s Second Reading (Phil 1:20c–24; 27a), St. Paul wonders whether continuing to live out his mission on earth is best for him. He certainly knew that being in the vineyard was good as much as he would rejoice in the life of heaven: “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain” (1:21). Today’s readings invite us to rejoice in God’s generosity towards others instead of resenting it. Even more, they help us to see that we are truly blessed by every moment we spend in the vineyard of the Lord: “For to me life is Christ.”

Father Alfredo Hernandez is Acting Rector/President of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boyton Beach.

God forgives, so should we

Father Alfredo I. Hernandez, Vice Rector and Academic Dean of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach
9-13-2020
Sir 27:30-28:7; Ps 103: 1-2, 3-4, 9-10, 11-12

As we hear the call to forgiveness in our First Reading and Gospel, the challenge of these readings can seem to be too much for us. The harshness of our political discourse and sometimes even discourse within the Church can make talk of mercy sound unreal or unattainable. How can I possibly forgive those who have hurt me? In our families and our communities, though, only mercy and forgiveness offer hope of real healing. Knowing who God is, “kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion,” (Ps 103:8) is the only we can entrust ourselves to his mercy and hope to imitate it.

The First Reading is already very clear in teaching that we need to forgive others if we expect forgiveness. We tend to think that the call to be merciful before asking for mercy is new in the New Testament, but we see here that the Jewish people already had been given the same challenge. This question sums up the message succinctly: “Can one refuse mercy to a sinner like oneself, yet seek pardon for one’s own sins?” (Sir 28:4)

Then, in the Gospel, Peter asks a question: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Mt 18:21). Jesus’ response arrives artfully at the very center of his continued words to the disciples about the meaning of following him. The “seventy-seven times” that Jesus says we must forgive is certainly not meant to be an exact number, and indeed many translations of Matthew 18:22 actually say “seventy times seven times.” He is saying that we always need to be ready to forgive. In the end, we need to be merciful because he is “kind and merciful,” because he has forgiven us so much.

The parable that follows tell us why. Hearing the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:23–31) and grasping the quantities involved is tough for us who are removed from the culture of the original story. The Lectionary translation says that the first servant owed a “huge amount” (18:24). Yet the expression in Greek, which is literally translated as “ten thousand talents,” is an incredibly large amount of money—something like a billion dollars, perhaps. The “much smaller amount” (18:28) was about one hundred days’ wages. The comparison boggles the mind when we look at the amounts in comparison, and it helps us to consider seriously what anyone’s debt to us is compared to our debt to God.

How difficult forgiving can be, though: sometimes asking for forgiveness or forgiving others can make us seem weak. Yet remember that the whole reason that Jesus came into the world and suffered and died for us was to accomplish God’s plan of mercy: “Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9). Jesus is our Lord as the one who has won salvation for us and as the one who has brought us his Father’s forgiving love.

Let me suggest an exercise in forgiveness that might be helpful: consider someone you are having trouble forgiving. Give yourself permission to remember the why behind your emotions. What this person did to you hurts, and your feelings are real and maybe still raw. Now bring to mind what you owe to God. What have been some of the most powerful experiences of mercy you have had in the confessional? Look at Jesus on the cross and remind yourself that he died on the cross so that your sins would be forgiven. Weigh your debt to Jesus against the debt that this person owes you. Is there a comparison?

A caveat: forgiving and reestablishing a relationship are different things. Sometimes we can add insult to injury because we would like to forgive someone who keeps on hurting us and shows no desire for a real relationship. If the person does not accept forgiveness, then we have done our part. Not all sinners accepted Jesus’ forgiveness from the cross; we certainly cannot expect to be more successful than Jesus. But we do need to seek to be as merciful as God is to us. Why forgive? Because God forgives: “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.”

Father Alfredo Hernandez is Acting Rector/President of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boyton Beach.

We need to be a Church that challenges evil in our society

Father Alfredo I. Hernandez
9-6-2020
Ez 33:7-9, Ps 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9, Rom 13:8-10, Mt 18:15-20

One of our greatest challenges, in an age in which tolerance is seen as the greatest virtue and intolerance as the greatest vice, can be to respond to the Lord’s call to Ezekiel to be a “watchman for the house of Israel” (33:7). How can we love our neighbors precisely by challenging the sin present in the world? How can the Church offer not only healing and mercy — which she always must and does — but also the correction Jesus describes in the Gospel (Matt 18:15–18)?

The famous English writer, G. K. Chesterton, wrote, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” We are indeed called to forgive even the most grievous faults of our brothers and sisters. To forgive and to condone are very different, however. As Catholic Christians the world needs us to recognize evil and challenge it, precisely so that we may be able to be victorious against it.

We are in a season, in the Church universal and in our country, when there is a great tendency to accuse. If someone disagrees with us about the pandemic or about how best to respond to the very difficult political choices placed before us or about how to understand the life of the Church right now, the tendency, certainly in the blogosphere, can be to follow the last step of Jesus’s advice today: “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). In our desire to purify our community of those who we think are so obviously wrong, however, have we followed the steps that Jesus offers first? Have we spoken to the person “alone” (Matt 18:15), instead of making accusations all over the Internet and all over the community?

Have we tried to bring friends and other members of the community to help him or her? Have we brought the matter to the Church? Finally, do we trust the Church, or do we make ourselves and our favorite source of news the final arbiter? Jesus makes it clear that the Church has the final word, with the same words he said to St. Peter after his profession of faith: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18; Matt 16:19).

We need to be a Church that challenges evil in our society and calls people away from sin. We need to be able to recognize and call out sins against human life, against the dignity of marriage and the family, against the rights of the poor and the immigrant. Calling the world to conversion is central to our mission, and we cannot give up this mission, even if it makes us unpopular.

At the same time, our attitude must never be one of wanting to condemn, but of wanting to bring back to God, of calling people to come home to Christ and his love in the Church. St. Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another” (Rom 13:8). If it is not love of our brothers and sisters that motivates our correction and that motivates our desire to bring them to communion, I assure you it will show. I say this to seminarians when I advise them about preaching, especially about difficult topics—the people will know if you love them. This Sunday’s readings remind us, at a crucial moment, that we need to challenge the world and we need to challenge our brothers and sisters. Our challenge needs to come from love and must seek to bring home those who are away.

The Psalmist writes: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:7–8).  May we listen carefully to hear the voice of the Lord, calling us to love and to self-giving. May we be granted the grace to help others recognize his voice as well, so that we may fulfill our mission as watchmen for the new house of Israel.

Father Alfredo Hernandez is Acting Rector/President of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boyton Beach.

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