Sunday, January 31, 2010

Septuagesima Sunday

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

You can see them on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, all lined up with the tools of their trade, waiting expectantly in the crisp, cold air of the early morning. You can see them, too, at carefully regulated centers and less than regulated convenience store parking lots of Arlington, Virginia. They are plumbers, carpenters, electricians. They will dig, prune, and plant. They will work for whatever seems fair or less than fair. They are the day laborers.

True, some may work only long enough to get by and spend their wages without a thought for tomorrow. But most of them toil for themselves and a family besides, perhaps sending money far away to feed a wife and children, often laboring under the cloud of a less than certain legal status. Their work is hard, but work they must, and this too many of their employers know too well. Some are fair, some are just, some are generous. Too often, far too often, they are not. They reach out the promise of a full day's pay for a full day of work. Go you also into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is just. With the setting of the sun, what come to their hands and into their pocket is, with alarming regularity, far less than what is just.

How disconcerting, then, to read about the paterfamilias in the Gospel today whose wage scale would hardly pass legal muster. True, he is altogether generous with those who worked from the eleventh hour, those who received the full day's wage for an hour's work. And those who toiled the whole day through? Those who have borne the burden of the day's heat? Sure enough, they received precisely what they were promised. Yet, do we not feel for them, that a man so generous with those who have been left idle all day because no man had hired them could not also show that same generosity by enlarging those who had done their work from the very first hour?

Paul, after all, in the Epistle to the Corinthians might seem to be on their side! Run the race as though one only were to receive the crown, he tells us. Subject the body to toil and labor so as not to lose the reward. Work in the way of righteousness matters. Even with a full share in the spiritual blessings poured out upon the people of Israel in their Exodus from Egypt, and so also Paul reminds us even for those of the Christian faith who share those same spiritual blessings in Baptism and the Eucharist, with most of them God was not well pleased. Work hard, he tells us, and do not be idle. Strive daily and be willing to endure much and forgo even more. God will reward those who run such a race.

We know, of course, that the paterfamilias has acted rightly, and we know that Paul does not contradict the Gospel. But why? Why on the one hand are we warned to work hard in the service of Christ so as to receive an imperishable crown and yet on the other hand told that whether we have worked long in God's service or been slipped in at the last hour, there is no distinction?

Whatever the deeper truths of this mystery, it may be helpful to be altogether certain in our indignation that we are among those working from the first or third hour, and not the eleventh. For all of our protests that we have labored long in the vineyard, are we so ready to place our record of love of God and neighbor to public scrutiny. Do we really wish to risk our wages of eternal life to a moral and spiritual audit, to see that denarius we were sure to receive slowly whittled away by every last inattentive prayer, every idle word or impatient grumbling, our sluggishness in coming to the aid of those who ask or our resentment when our contributions are less trumpeted than unacknowledged? Might we not rather breathe a sigh of relief that we who are all too likely part of that idle gang, loitering the street corners of life in the gloaming of the day, can still rejoice in a God so generous that his merciful bounty does not so much violate justice as wink at it in our favor?

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Conversion of St Paul

Acts 9:1-22 / Matthew 19:27-29

We are not altogether comfortable with the story of the conversion of St Paul. Indeed, we are decidedly of two minds about stories of conversion in general. On the one hand, we are very much fond of stories in which the persecutor has a change of heart, in which he is not defeated, but won over. To move from breathing threats of slaughter to having left all and followed the Way, becoming the most storied, respected, and influential witness to the Gospel — that is a story even unbelievers can appreciate. Even children not versed in the sacred Scriptures have heard the echo of Paul's conversion to Christ in the person of Dr Seuss' Grinch. It is a story we applaud, and with good reason.

We are no doubt all the more likely to find Paul's conversion hopeful in these recent and troubled times. The kind of zealot who delights to find any men or women belonging to the Way that he might bring them in bonds to Jerusalem is precisely the kind of religious believer most distasteful to us. We have seen and had enough of zeal which puts men and women in chains, which tears their very limbs apart with heartless calculation. To find someone happy to see the pain in those who belief is other than his own able, and by a short and radical turnabout, to become one of the very people he had despised — to hear this story and know it is true reminds us that, however grim the purveyors of credal and confessional violence may be, even they are not beyond the power of sovereign love to restore.

Yet, while we applaud the tale so far, its aftermath leaves the contemporary mind more than a tad disappointed. Were we to write the story, Paul would move from the position of intolerance and exclusivity rooted in violent oppression to tolerance and radical inclusion rooted in open dialogue and a solidarity grounded in diversity. However, that is not quite what we see. To be sure, the violence is gone. Whatever violence Paul comes to know in his following of Christ is only that which others inflict upon him, never what he brings upon others. Likewise, there is in the converted Paul a kind of radical inclusivity — without failing once to be a zealous lover of the Torah, Paul also becomes just as willing to identify, even to live, as a Gentile among the Gentiles. His boast is in the Cross of Christ, not the Torah, in the blood of Christ which draws the two so long apart into one, not in the Law that divides.

Even so, Paul's new mission as one converted is unambiguously one that seeks to convert. Paul does not merely share in his own personal encounter with Christ and declare how that encounter was true for him, exhorting others to find their own truths, their own encounters. No, Paul after his conversion is unequivocally partisan for Christ and his Gospel. The inclusion he preaches is not one that leaves others alone, free to imagine that God has a way to himself different for each people and each person, so that some may choose to come to him apart from his Incarnate Word. Rather, Paul's message is clear: Saul grew all the stronger and confounded the Jews who were living in Damascus, proving that this is the Christ.

Ultimately, the truth never excludes. We are, all of us, made to know and love the Truth. Even so, we can most certainly divide ourselves from what is true. To reject what is true, stubbornly to cling to what is wholly true as though it were the whole truth or true of the whole — this is the stance that divides. Yet, Christ is Truth, he is Truth Incarnate, and so there is no teaching so correct, no piety so laudable, no ethic so righteous that it can excuse the rejection of the Word made flesh. There are, then, many paths, many ways which lead us further and further from the Way, and whose travellers benefit not at all from their journeys. All the same, there is no path so perilous, no way so crooked, that Jesus Christ will not haste his way along it to meet his wayward sheep. That is the hope we have in the conversion of St Paul. That is the hope we have in the Way who is at once our Lord and our Friend, Jesus, who is the Christ promised from before all ages.