Sunday, February 8, 2009

Septuagesima Sunday

1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 / Matthew 20:1-16

Shouldn't generosity count? That was the question I was posed some years ago by a student less than pleased with the grade she had earned on her paper. The paper was, to be sure, altogether mediocre, and even in the middle of her tears and protests, she never disputed the point. It was not a good paper. Still, what stung her so much was that her friends — those friends with whom she had discussed the assignment, those friends whose papers she had proofread and critiqued — those friends had done well on their papers. Where in her grade could anyone see how much she had poured herself out for others? Should not her generosity have counted for something?

In one sense, to be sure, this student was altogether in the right. In the scheme of things, the goods of friendship and generosity are superior to those of academic achievement. In another sense, however, she had misconstrued what made her kindness to her friends something worthwhile, something meritorious and commendable. On her view, virtue in one regard (helping her friends with their work) balanced against a failure on her part to do the task at hand, namely, to write the best paper she could. On her view, the great good of friendship absolved her from what had brought her to the class in the first place, and her failure to achieve should somehow be overlooked.

Now, this student's mistake is hardly uniquely hers; the notion that the good that we have done elsewhere in our life frees us from attending to the labors before us is widespread. After all, it was this very problem which animated St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. I chastise my body, he writes, and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps after my preaching to others I myself should be rejected. The Apostle is altogether aware that his generosity in preaching the Gospel freely, while certainly a great good, does not "count" against his own failure to live in accord with the very good news he proclaims. Good Jew that he is, Paul knows all too well that fidelity to God in one respect does not erase or blot out a more fundamental rejection of God in another matter. He knows that the people of Israel might well have protested to God that he ought to overlook their having turned to other gods upon entering the Promised Land. After all, they might have said, were they not all under the pillar of cloud? Did they not pass through the sea at God's command? Were they not fed and given drink daily by God's generosity? Shouldn't any of this count?

As we begin our preparation for the Lenten season, God is warning us, as Paul warned the people of Corinth and Jesus his disciples, about the sin of presumption. Through presumption we imagine our goodness so worthy of God's praise that we fail to attend to whatever in our life still draws us from God. Through presumption we consider ourselves entitled not to worry over the "little things" — our idle gossip over lunch at work, our "lifting" of a few reams of paper or boxes of pens to use at home, our second or third cocktail when perhaps we may have been just as happy with none, our second hour at the computer without having spent more than five minutes of conversation with our wife, our brother in religion, our lonely neighbor. We have, we assure ourselves, labored long in the Lord's vineyard. We have prayed morning and night. We have given generously even in difficult times. We have not let our eyes wander to linger over what is better left unseen. We have kept to faith even when we knew it might be easier to give in to pressure and slide effortlessly into unbelief. We have labored since the first hour, we protest. Surely a generous God has to let that count for something!

Before we begin our Lenten devotions, our daily attendance at Mass, our fasting and our almsgiving, God wants us to attend to what we know the Gospel demands of us. Have we, in these days far from Christmas but not quite Lent, been attentive to the needs of our neighbor? Have we spent time, an hour, even a few minutes, every day in silent prayer? Do we attend to the Scriptures, in reading or preaching, or avail ourselves of the sacramental graces so freely available in Penance and the Eucharist?

Or, do we let ourselves coast spiritually? Are we riding on the now quite feeble wave of Christmas generosity, as forgotten as the tree with its tinsel? Are we instead storing up for a grand show of devotion in Lent, and so not troubling ourselves now, waiting to catch the swell that comes with fish and ashes?

Now, when nothing seems too much at stake, when it would be easy to presume in favor of the good we have done or intend firmly to do soon, now is the time to run the race. So run as to obtain it.

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