Like many of Jesus’ teachings, the one we find in today’s parable of the two sons is multi-leveled. On one level the message of the parable might be summed up in a proverb like “Actions speak louder than words.” On another, the parable is more subtle. Notice what Jesus does with it. He compares the chief priests and elders of the people to the son who is all talk and the tax-collectors and prostitutes to the son who in the end does the father’s will. And the example he cites to show his analogy is apt is the way each responded to the preaching of John the Baptist.
John came preaching a message of judgment and repentance. The chief priests were stung by John’s suggestion that they might be subject to judgment and in need of repentance, and so rejected him. The tax-collectors (Jews who collaborated with the hated Romans to fleece their own people) and the prostitutes heard John and recognized the truth of his words. They knew he was a prophet of God, and they knew they were in need of repentance. They may very well have felt trapped in their life and unable to change their ways, but they knew they were in bad shape and responded to John’s preaching as a flower might respond to the first droplets of rain in a parched desert.
The chief priests and elders talked a good show, and if the only norm of conduct were respectability, they’d have it all over the tax-collectors and prostitutes. The latter were definitely disreputable, but when God sent them a prophet, they believed in him because they knew what they were, and they knew they needed help.
There are any number of ways of saying all this. One would be that there are only two kinds of people in this world: sick people who know they are sick and know they need a doctor, and sick people who think they’re perfectly healthy and think they don’t need a doctor. The first can be cured. The second can’t. Peter Kreeft says it another way. He says that the two kinds of people on earth are saints who know they are sinners and sinners who think they are saints. The first can be forgiven. The second can’t.
What the tax-collectors and prostitutes had going for them was that they were in touch with reality. They know who and what they were, so they knew they needed help, and they recognized that help in John the Baptist and in Jesus much more often than the chief priests and elders of the people did.
The ancients used to say that the beginning of wisdom was to know oneself. It’s a life’s work to do so, but the more we know ourselves, the more we’ll know our need of healing, and the deeper will be our relationship to the Divine Physician. Come to think of it, It’s probably not a very healthy sign that so few Catholics nowadays feel the need for confession.
Today’s parable of the workmen being paid the same wage even though they’ve all worked different hours is one everybody loves to hate. It all seems like a clear case of blatant injustice. What could Jesus possibly be getting at? Let’s take a closer look at the parable, and let’s assume for a moment that it really does have to do with wages and work.
The first thing to notice is that those hired in the morningagreed to the usual daily wage. They didn’t start out grumbling that their employer was a cheapskate, that they deserved more. They agreed to what they considered a just wage.
Those who came later, we’re told, got the same wage but for less work, but this doesn’t mean the first group was treated unjustly; it means the later groups were treated generously. It means that those who complained (this includes us) were not striking a blow for justice; they were envious of those who got more than justice. Now envy is very understandable, but it is not a virtue. An awful lot of what passes for a struggle for justice in our world is really nothing more than envy. In itself, it’s not an injustice that some people have more than others. It’s only injustice when some, through no fault of their own, are deprived of necessities, while others have more than they need. This is not the case in the parable.
If the first workers and we are really so concerned about justice, if we are really just men and women outraged at the inequity of the situation described in the parable, then it follows that if we were among those who came later and got the same wage as the earliest group, we would give them part of our wages to balance the out-of-kilter scales of justice. Fat chance! Isn’t it odd how justice keeps changing her face depending on whether or not she benefits us?
So you see, I don’t think that even when the parable is interpreted literally we’re in a position of strength as we presume to sit in judgment on it. But the fact is that this isn’t really what the parable is about at all. It’s about two altogether different things. First, it’s Jesus’ way of telling his Jewish listeners that the Johnny-come-lately pagans are being invited to the fullness of salvation just as the chosen people were. And second, he’s telling us that no matter how late we come to work in his vineyard, even at close of day, even on our deathbeds, we too will be offered everlasting life. Understood this way, the parable is filled with encouragement and hope for everyone, even the lowest, laziest, rottenest, most God-forsaken sinner.
Now maybe I’m mistaken, but I suspect that many of us find this reading of the parable little less obnoxious than the first I mentioned. Why, we may feel, should some worthless wretch who’s never done any good, in fact has done a great deal of harm and evil, be able to repent at the last minute and get the same reward as we who have toiled all these years at being good?
Once again, this has much more to do with that little green demon, envy, than it does with bright shining justice. It assumes, for starters, that we’ve earned heaven and receive it as the just desserts of our labors. That’s a heresy. Jesus has earned heaven for us. Heaven is a gift, a mercy, not a matter of justice. It assumes further that being good is basically a bore and a chore, and that being bad is the real fun. Wrong again, and pretty insulting to God whose companionship we’ve presumably been enjoying all these years we’ve been so wonderful. It forgets that in heaven and among the saints on earth, there is more rejoicing over one repentant sinner than over a hundred righteous folks who never need to repent. In the end, this parable, which we presume to scrutinize and put on trial, casts a bright light on us and shows just how worldly our standards are, how little christened we really are.
I have a feeling that, if one day we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in heaven, we’ll be so completely speechless with joy that it all turned out to be true and that we really made, we won’t care who else made it with us. In fact, if it’s really heaven, we’ll even be happy to see our worst enemy there by our side, transformed like us, into someone the like of whom we could never have seen on earth, unless perhaps we had lived two thousand years ago and bumped into Jesus or Mary, living in the land called Holy.
Among the world’s religions, even when compared with other versions of Christianity, Catholicism is unique in its theology of suffering and in the attention it pays to the Cross of Christ. Our church’s, sometimes our persons, are adorned with crucifixes. You’ll find the fourteen Stations of the Cross on the walls of almost every Catholic Church you enter. Every year we celebrate Passion/Palm Sunday the week before Easter, recalling first Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem only five days before His crucifixion, then His death on the Cross with a communal reading of the Passion narrative from one of the gospels. And then, of course, there’s Good Friday, with another communal reading of the Passion, followed by veneration of the Cross.
Also each year, on Sept. 14, we celebrate a Feast called “the Exaltation” or “the Triumph of the Cross.” This year Sept 14 falls on a Sunday, and so many more Catholics get to celebrate it than would be the case if it fell on a weekday.
Is this focus on the Cross of Christ and our participation in it morbid or perverse or unwholesome? I heard about a priest recently who scolded a woman for teaching the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary to children. It would frighten them, he thought. I once had a parishioner thank me for not having a crucifix in the rectory office. They’re so depressing, she said. Another parishioner attended a Protestant service and was enchanted by the giant butterfly on the wall behind the altar, where in a Catholic church there would usually be a crucifix.
The centrality of the Cross in Catholic theology and devotion is not there to promote a cult of suffering for its own sake, nor to depress or dishearten us. It’s there to remind us of the greatness of God’s love and humility on the one hand, the horror of sin on the other, and to show us that what is inevitable in life and seemingly only destructive, namely suffering and death, is in fact a path to spiritual maturity and new and eternal life.
Most of us, I think, for all our church-going, are really practitioners of what we might call natural religion. The uniqueness of our Catholic faith has yet to take really deep root in us. We see suffering as bad, pure and simple. We pray to God to take it away. If he does, we’re happy. If he doesn’t, we’re disappointed. Still, on our better days, even apart from our Catholic faith, we realize that there’s something ennobling about accepting suffering bravely and gracefully, and we revere those who make great sacrifices for the good of others. Besides all the tragedy of 9/11, we’re deeply moved by images of firefighters running up and into the Twin Towers while everyone else was running down and out. Self-sacrifice inspires because it speaks to what is best in human beings. Patient, joyful endurance awes us, both because we don’t have it ourselves and wish we did, and because it seems to come from someplace other than this world.
Fr. Benedict Groeschel tells of going to visit a woman who for decades had to live in an iron lung. This was before they had invented respirators. She was encased in a great metal container, in which air pressure waxed and waned, emptying and filling her lungs, which didn’t work on their own. Only her head protruded from the metal shell. A mirror at an angle over her head enabled her to see visitors. Fr. Groeschel visited her the first time with great trepidation, wondering what he could possibly say to console this woman. He needn’t have worried. In the end, he would visit her when he needed a pick-me-up, so radiant and peaceful and joyful was she. Jesus was everything to her, and she felt honored to hang on the Cross with him.
I have to tell you, that’s way beyond me. If I have a bit of a headache, you don’t want to be around me. But I know grace when I see it. I know the overcoming of human self-centeredness and self-pity when I see it. Call it the triumph of one’s better self over one’s lesser self, or of grace over nature, or the flowering of the seed of sanctity. Whatever you call it, it certainly seems that the very best in us, that which is most exalted, often comes with the embrace of the Cross.
The Church isn’t morbid or perverse in its focusing on the Cross. She exalts the Cross because through the Cross we are exalted.