There has been a tendency for traditional Catholics to hitch their wagons to the Republican Party specifically, and to conservative politics in general. It is demonstrably true that the stated platform of the Republican Party has been more aligned with Catholic teaching on a number of critical issues: abortion, religious liberty, the definition of marriage, euthanasia, school choice, parental notification, etc. And while it is true that some other issues as stated in the Catechism (opposition to the death penalty, immigration reform, care for the poor, etc.) align with Democratic views, most traditional Catholics point out that these issues are either not doctrinally absolute, or are matters about which reasonable people can differ in terms of implementation.
But though it is demonstrably true that the Republican platform hews closely to Catholic teaching on many life and family issues, it is also demonstrably true that there has been an alarming and consistent decline in cultural adherence to Catholic, biblical, and traditional teaching in these matters. And this decline has occurred despite significant periods of Republican ascendency in the past 60 years. There have been many Republican presidents during the years since the cultural revolution of 1968. And there have been periods of significant Republican control of Congress as well, especially since 1994. At best, traditional values held their own during these periods. But it is hard to argue that Republican or conservative majorities reversed the rising tide of abortion and euthanasia, reduced the levels of fornication, diminished the number of divorces, or curtailed support for same-sex unions.
What are we to learn from this? A thoughtful article by Yuval Levin over at First Things offers some insights. I am generally less optimistic than he, but I would like to share what I think are some of his better reflections. The full article is here: A Pessimistic Case for Hope. I have added my own remarks below in red text.
Yuval Levin, who is at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is editor of National Affairs writes,
Ten years ago this fall, it seemed for a moment like social conservatives might be ascendant in our politics. Immediately after the 2004 election, some analysts on the right and left alike said George W. Bush’s reelection signaled a rising tide of “values voters” who would yield an enduring nationwide advantage for Republicans on social issues … Many social conservatives now look wistfully upon that moment and see in the decade that followed … a sorry decline. Both politics and the culture now seem increasingly hostile to social conservatism, and religious believers in the public square are fighting for even minimal tolerance. The tide appears to have turned decisively …
So here is well described the tendency over the past thirty years to seek to advance traditional cultural values through political connections. This is not intrinsically wrong and has many historical precedents. For many decades the Catholic Church unofficially aligned with the Democratic Party in order to advance Catholic social teaching related to civil rights, labor conditions, wages, benefits, etc. As those issues waned and labor unions become powerful (and all too often corrupt), attention shifted to moral issues in the wake of the sexual and cultural revolution.
The “legalization” of abortion in 1973 did not immediately cause a political realignment. But by the early 1980s the parties largely landed on different sides of the issue. Catholics increasingly found allies among Republicans regarding abortion and other family and life issues that were emerging in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision and the 60s revolution.
However, unlike the unofficial “partnership” with the Democratic Party during the heady days of labor victories and the Civil Rights movement, the alliance with Republicans has produced only limited victories and little more than a slowing of the erosion of the values related to family, faith, and life. And thus Levin notes here the general pessimism that pervades traditional ranks today. He continues,
But today’s cultural conservatives exhibit the wrong sort of pessimism about all this. They are too pessimistic about their cultural and political prospects because they are not pessimistic enough about the limits of human nature. A clearer sense of those limits should help us see not only why traditionalism never triumphs in the liberal society but also why progressivism can never suffice …
Ah! Here is an interesting reference to our fallen human condition. At the end of the day, government cannot remedy our fallen tendency to be obtuse, rebellious, greedy, and licentious. It is really more the role of culture and the presence of a strong, prophetic, organized, and effective Church that must, by God’s grace, work to remedy the worst of the ills we face. The notion of a large government role in creating a just society is too easily a form of utopianism.
Perhaps it is true that government, through laws and policies, can reinforce good behavior and punish bad or destructive behavior. But if the culture is really heading south (as it is), that culture will ultimately infect the very government some wish to engage as an ally. Why are there so many wicked, corrupt, and confused leaders in the civic arena? Why are even the better among civic leaders often weak and ineffective in boldly addressing the cultural decline? Why do conservative judges, on whom so many have placed high hopes, so often disappoint? Because, at the end of the day, these are the sorts of leaders (and people) our culture produces: deceived, often unscrupulous, weak, uncertain, ineffective, and easily swayed.
Sadly, the malaise has often reached the Church as well. For while the Church still teaches infallibly on faith and morals, and while her doctrine and Scripture provide a sure light, this guarantee does not extend to all her human leaders, who are also products of a confused, compromised, and darkened culture. Clear and courageous teachers and leaders among the clergy (as well as among parents) are becoming harder and harder to find, and all too often they disappoint.
What then are concerned and traditional Catholics to do? Levin offers the following:
[Traditionalists] should live out their faiths and their ways in the world, confident that their instruction and example will make that world better and that people will be drawn to the spark … And it means that traditionalists must be committed to the preservation of spaces for private life that are protected from the perverse shortsightedness of politics.
In other words, it means that we are going to have to persist in our fight to keep government out of our families and our Church. Increasingly intrusive government involvement needs to be seen for the danger that it is. Levin continues,
We should be intensely engaged in the struggle for the soul of our society—knowing we can expect no ultimate victory from politics, but also that we are by no means destined to defeat, and that by persisting in the struggle we make room for another generation to rise and thrive and seek to embody the good.
Many years ago, Venerable Fulton Sheen remarked that we have tried every means to change the world but one: holiness. Government cannot save us; only God can save us. And God works through grace and the transformation of world—one soul at a time. It is easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth. So, it is time to cover our feet with the Gospel of Truth.
Holiness cannot remain an abstraction. It is time for traditional Catholic men and women to get married and stay married, to have larger families and raise them in the fear of the Lord. It is time to stop being greedy and selling our soul for the trinkets of the world, so that we can’t “afford” children. It’s time to pray and fast. It’s time for Eucharistic Adoration, and the Rosary, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. It’s time to stop fornicating, remaining silent about the sinfulness of homosexual acts, and making light of any form of sinful rebellion. It’s time to dress modestly and live differently, visibly, in a world that has become increasingly coarse, immodest, and cynical. It’s time to heroically care for the poor and not just think the government should do what we ought to do. And we must bring the poor to the gospel, not just attend to their physical needs as yet another social service agency. It’s time for clergy and parents to be more courageous and clear.
It is time to live differently. Our only real hope is holiness; only then can we be real leaven that will raise our culture out of the mess in which we are currently mired.
Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; … [Thus purifying your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart (1 Peter 1:13ff).
Here is a video that celebrates virtue:
It is true that we have many similarities to primates and, really, to all mammals. But the similarities stop there.
At the level of the soul the differences could not be greater! Animals do not compose symphonies; they do not write great works of literature or create magnificent art. They do not build cities or form bicameral legislatures. They do not pass laws or even ponder right and wrong. They do not punish crime or reward virtue. They have no museums or libraries to collect their great works. They do not invent telescopes to look to the stars; they have not been to the moon and back or even wish to go there. They do not speak or sing, not because they lack a larynx, but because they have nothing to say, nothing to sing joyfully or to lament. They may suffer physical pain but they do not cry out in anguish, “Why?” They do not have cemeteries or religious rites. They may form packs to hunt but they do not form brotherhoods to assist the widows of dead members. They do not send their children to school to learn and they do not desire something greater for them. They do not ponder the Pythagorean theorem and its relationship to music theory. They do not build hospitals, theaters, or sports arenas. They do not hold contests or celebrate weddings. They do not debate rights or justice or have courts. They do not have armies or go to war.
The gulf between animals and humans is enormous. Clearly the existence of the human soul, and more specifically that aspect of the soul called the spirit, is evident in abundance in the chasm between man and even the highest primates. Our lives and experiences are wholly different from theirs.
Consider art, specifically the fine art of painting. I cannot draw or paint, yet I have always marveled at how some can take an empty canvas and bring it to life with color, form, depth, and shadow. And, little by little, from the painter’s brush and from his or her soul a picture emerges. So, too, with sculpting. A mere block of marble, with each blow of the sculptor’s tools, comes to resemble the form of a human being or some other reality in nature.
Some years ago there was a painter on PBS (Bob Ross) who would, over the course of half an hour, paint a picture and describe what he was doing as he went along. I watched that show almost every week for a number of years. And though I watched him, saw what he did, and even heard him describe the techniques, I never ceased to be amazed by the mystery before me. How did he do it? He described his method and technique, but there was some deeper mystery at work, a power of the soul, a gift. He claimed that we all have it. But I am more inclined to think that some have the ability to paint or sculpt as a special gift.
Michelangelo famously said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” He also said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Yes, but how does he see it? How does he set it free? Indeed, another great mystery and faculty of the human soul of some.
As with music, the art of painting and sculpting seems a unique capacity of the human soul. As I pointed out, animals do not draw; they do not sculpt; they do not even appreciate art. It is a special gift to the human person to be captivated by beauty, and for that beauty, once seen and experienced, to emerge from the soul in expressive praise. There are special glories and unique gifts given only to the human person, mysterious gifts to be sure. It is caught up in our desire for what is good, true, and beautiful; caught up in our soul’s ultimate longing for God.
Perhaps Michelangelo should have the last word: “Every beauty which is seen here by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.”
Here’s a video of a painter at work on a speed painting. Be sure to watch all the way through to the surprise ending.
Here’s a video of Bob Ross from the Joy of Painting show I mentioned above. In this brief passage, Bob teaches us to paint a mountain and imparts a little philosophy as well.
And finally, this video shows the remarkable transformation of a block of marble to the image of a human face.
A very common word in the New Testament is “deceived.” In English we tend to think of this word as referring to someone who has been tricked or fooled. And thus the emphasis is on intellectual terms. The Greek and Latin roots, however, have an almost physical dimension to them.
The Latin roots for “deceived” or “deception” are de- (from) + capere (to take or carry away). The Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as “deceived” is πλανάομαι (planaomai) and means more literally “to be carried off” or “to be led astray.”
Thus, those who are deceived are those who have been carried off or carried away by false teachings, trends, or the ways of this world.
Perhaps another biblical image relating to this is the one in which St. Peter speaks of “your adversary the devil [who] prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). One can almost see in one’s imagination a lion with his limp and dying prey hanging from his mouth as he carries it off. And thus one who has been deceived is like one who has been stalked, attacked, and stunned or killed, and is being carried off in the mouth of the lion (Satan).
This is deception; this is what it means to be deceived, to be stalked and through various means grasped, stunned, and carried off as prey.
Over and over again Scripture warns us not to be deceived, that is, not to become prey for Satan, for demons, and for all those who consort with him to capture us and carry us off. A plain warning comes in the Letter to the Hebrews:
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings (Heb 13:8-9).
Another text warns that there are many who wish to deceive us and their teachings are called the doctrines of demons:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and the doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared (1 Ti 4:1–2 ).
Indeed, this is a common human problem, especially today. There are many plausible liars going about today who seek to confuse, to stun, and to carry off faithful Catholics. They do this with hypocrisy. To say that something is done with hypocrisy means literally that it is done by “actors,” since hypocrite in Greek means “actor.” In a more extended sense it means that when we say something with hypocrisy we are being insincere. These plausible liars, as actors, are well skilled at being pleasing, at appearing pleasant, reasonable, sophisticated, and “free.” But this is an act. They are in bondage to the sins they seek to glorify. The scriptural text here says that their consciences are seared; that is, they are branded, burned, and hypnotized by the sins they commit. They are not smart; they are lost and confused. They are to be prayed for, but not listened to.
Many of them are very good actors, playing the role of plausible liars. Some have many letters after their name (PhD, D.D., M.D., etc.). Some have advanced degrees and high positions in academia or in the media. Some of them teach in Catholic institutions; some even wear Roman collars. Most of them achieve their plausibility by appealing to innocuous themes such as tolerance, patience, kindness, and that most vacuous and currently ill-defined idea called “love.” Surely tolerance, patience, kindness, and love all have their places. And being agreeable, pleasant, soft-spoken, and reasonable in tone are all good things in and of themselves. But they can also become a cloak for a false plausibility and are, as the text above says, the “hypocrisy of liars.” In other words, these people are actors; they play the role of tolerant and enlightened experts but in reality are desperately trying to justify sinful behavior and quiet their seared (though still troubled) consciences.
And thus Scripture warns us not to be deceived, not to be carried off, not to be carried away by plausible liars who say exactly the opposite of what God’s Word says, who call good or “no big deal” what God calls sin. Thus, with their distorted understanding of tolerance and love they promote and even celebrate acts of sodomy, fornication, abortion, and euthanasia. They promote religious syncretism and construct a fake Jesus and a designer God through their “God-within” movements and their statements that “I’m spiritual but not religious.” They substitute their own doctrines for the revealed ones of Scripture. If they reference Scripture at all it is only to declare that it does not say what it plainly does say.
Regarding all these erroneous stances and appeals, Scripture announces again and again, do not be deceived; do not be carried away; do not be carried off. Here are just a few of the texts that warn us:
- Rom 16:17-21 I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. 19 For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless as to what is evil; 20 then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
- 1 Cor 3:18–21 Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So let no one boast of men.
- 1 Cor 6:9–10 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexual offenders, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
- 1 Cor 15:33–34 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
- 2 Cor 11:3–4 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4 For if someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.
- Gal 6:7–8 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. 8 For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
- Eph 5:5–8 Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
- 2 Ti 3:12–13 Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived.
- 1 Jn 2:24–27 If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is what he has promised us, eternal life. 26 I write this to you about those who would deceive you.
- 1 Jn 3:7–9 Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.
- 2 Jn 7–10 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward. 9 Anyone who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. 10 If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him.
Other texts warn us against deceiving ourselves. For at times we entertain lies and thereby allow ourselves to be entrapped by Satan and carried off by our own deceit.
- Jas 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
- Jas 1:26–27 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
- 1 Jn 1:8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
And here are some texts that tell us who is really behind all deception:
- Rev 12:9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
- Rev 19:20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had worked the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur.
- Rev 20:1–10 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while …7 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth … but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
OK, clear enough? Do not be deceived; do not be carried away or carried off by errors or by the sinful lies of this present evil age. As St. Paul says elsewhere, Test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 5:21-22). Yes, square everything with the Word of God in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Know the catechism; know your faith. Know the true Lord, the real Jesus of Scripture (not the fake Jesus of convenience). Test everything, everything by these standards. Do not be deceived.
For the preacher, the teacher and the parent comes this instruction from St. Paul:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. 5 As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry. (2 Tim 4:1-6)
Here is an allegory on the rejection of truth and the complete ruin the rejection brings:
In understanding this Gospel, we cannot overlook the audience Jesus was addressing. The text begins, Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people. In effect, Jesus was addressing the religious leaders and the religiously observant of His day. He calls to their attention at least three things, three common sins or pitfalls of the pious, if you will: lost connections, leaping to conclusions, and lip service.
Let’s look at each of these in turn, remembering that though they are not exclusive to the religiously observant, they are considered in that context. Let’s also learn how they are particularly problematic when it comes to our mandate to hand on the faith through evangelization.
I. Lost Connections – The text says, A man had two sons. Now the text will go on to describe these two sons as very different and yet also quite similar. The man, of course, is God, and we are all His children. And though very different, we all have the same Father and we all have sin. A man had two sons, which is another way of saying that the sons had one Father. Yes, we all have a connection with another that we cannot deny, regardless of our differences. We will look more at the differences between the two sons as we go on, but for now, consider merely this fact: a man (God) had two sons.
Why emphasize this? Because it is too easy for us to seek to sever the link we have with one another, to effect a kind of divorce from people we fear or do not like. For example, on the way to Mass we may drive past tough parts of town and see drug dealers, gangs of young men loitering in front of liquor stores, prostitutes, and other outwardly troubled and rebellious people. And it is too easy to be cynical and say, “Some people’s children!” or “Look at that; how awful.” Or we may simply ignore them. Yet in all this we fail to recall that these are our brothers, our sisters. It is so easy to dismiss them, to write them off, to strive to distance ourselves from them. But God has a question for us: “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9)
Yes, there are many whom we may be tempted to try to disown if we’re not careful. Perhaps they are of a different political party, a different economic class, or a different race. Maybe they are just people we don’t like. We divide, but God unites. A man had two sons, and yes they are different but he is father to them both; he loves both of them. He speaks to them both and calls them his sons.
In terms of evangelization, it will be noted that Jesus has sent us to all the nations. No longer are Israel and the Gentiles to be separated, with the one considered the chosen people and the other not. And hence the Church is catholic, is universal; she seeks to unite all. For a man had two sons, but the two sons have one father. In seeking to evangelize, has it ever occurred to you that the least likely member of your family could be the one God most wants you to reach? Be careful of lost connections, for souls can be lost that way.
II. Leaping to Conclusions – A second “sin of the pious” is leaping to the conclusion that someone is irredeemably lost, writing someone off. Many of the Scribes and Pharisees, the religiously observant of their day, had done just this with a large segment of the population. Rather than going out and working among the people to preach the Word and teach observance of the Law, many of them simply called the crowds “sinners” and dismissed them as lost. In fact they were shocked that Jesus “welcomed sinners and ate with them” (e.g., Lk 15:2). In effect, Jesus says to them, “Not so fast. Don’t leap to conclusions and write anyone off. Sick people need a doctor and I have come to be their divine physician and to heal many of them.”
Thus Jesus, in today’s parable, speaks of a sinner who repents: [The Father] came to the first and said, “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.” He said in reply, “I will not,” but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The point is that we just don’t know and we should be very careful not to just write people off, even those who seem locked in very serious and sinful patterns, or who seem hostile to God. The example of St. Paul should certainly give us hope as should that of St. Augustine. In fact, St. Augustine wrote well on the fact that we just don’t know how things will turn out, that we should pray for everyone, writing no one off:
For what man can judge rightly concerning another? Our whole daily life is filled with rash judgments. He of whom we had despaired is converted suddenly and becomes very good. He from whom we had expected a great deal fails and becomes very bad. Neither our fear nor our hope is certain. What any man is today, that man scarcely know. Still in some way he does know. What he will be tomorrow however, he does not know (Sermo 46, 25).
Scripture also says, The oppressed often rise to a throne, and some that none would consider, wear a crown. The exalted often fall into utter disgrace; … Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known (Sirach 11:28-29).
I knew a man (now deceased) who told me his story, the story of how he was raised in the Church, got all his Sacraments, went to Church regularly, and was a God-fearing man. But in his early 40s he descended into alcoholism, began to be unfaithful to his wife, stopped going to Church, and was dismissive of God. Were you or I to have seen him at that time, we might easily have concluded that the situation looked bad. But somewhere in his early 60s (he knows not how, except that someone was praying for him), he pulled out of his rebellion and re-entered the vineyard. He sought help for his drinking problem and reconciled with his wife and children. Daily mass, weekly confession, daily rosary, and Stations of the Cross. Yes, when he returned, he really returned. But he said to me that he had done a lot of sinning and now it was time to do a lot of praying, “making up for lost time,” as he put it. He died a penitent in the bosom of the Church.
You just never know. Don’t write anyone off. Nothing stabs evangelization in the heart more than the presumption by many of us that someone is an unlikely candidate for conversion. Keep praying and keep working. Jesus tells us of a son who told his father to “buzz off,” but later repented and went into the vineyard. Pray, hope, and work; you just never know. Don’t give up.
And don’t think anyone is a finished work and a permanent member of the vineyard. Indeed, pray, hope, and work—for your own salvation and that of others, even those who seem well within the vineyard. For here, too, you and I know many stories of former parishioners, even parish leaders who later drifted away. St Paul spoke of how he had a kind of sober vigilance, even regarding his own salvation: But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:27).
III. Lip Service – The text says, The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, “Yes, sir,” but did not go.
So consider the second son. He appears to be respectful to his father. When told to go into the vineyard he respectfully tells his father that he will do so. He would not dream of cursing his father or addressing him in any strident way. In terms of all God’s children, you might say he was religiously observant, outwardly respectful, a decent sort of person.
But in the end, he does not get around to going to the vineyard. Whatever his reasons, his obedience to his father was only superficial. His behavior is emblematic of a great danger exhibited by some of the religiously observant: the danger of just giving God “lip service.” Yes, we will praise the Lord, sing a hymn, shout “Hallelujah,” and say “Amen”—all on Sunday. But on Monday, will we obey and go to the vineyard of obedience, of forgiveness of those who have wronged us, of generosity to the poor, of chastity, of compassion, of love for our spouse and children, of speaking the truth in love, of evangelization and being God’s prophets? Will we go to the vineyard? Or is it all just so much lip service we’re paying to God?
And the greatest sadness of all is that it is our very religious observance (a good and commanded thing to be sure) that often blinds us to our broader disobedience. For it is too easy and too common for religiously observant persons to reduce the faith merely to rituals and, once the rituals are observed, check off the “God-box.” In effect these people are saying or thinking, “OK, I’ve gone to Mass, paid my tithes, said a few Amens, and praised the Lord by singing. Now I’m done.” The God-box is checked. Yes, with our lips we have praised God on Sunday. But do we go to the vineyard on Monday?
And “lip service Christians” are a terrible witness and a real blow to evangelization because people can spot the hypocrisy a mile away. How on earth can we ever hope to win souls for Christ if they just see us going through the motions, checking off the God-box but living lives that are unreformed and untransformed? Our greatest witness has got to be a life that is being changed by Jesus Christ; a life that manifests the biblical principles of love, justice, and charity; a life that demonstrates a biblical understanding of sexuality; a life that exhibits the biblical priorities of forgiveness, mercy, and generosity; a life lived with a renewed mind and heart.
Now none of us do this perfectly, but pray that God’s transformative power is at work in us and that people notice it. Nothing is more destructive to evangelization than lip service Christians, who give the outward appearance of obedience and religiosity but who everyone knows are really phony. And nothing is more helpful to evangelizing our children, family members and friends than Christians who display lives that are being transformed and made joyful, serene, and holy.
All of this leads to this message: “God can use anything, but He shouldn’t have to.” In other words, though none of us is a perfect disciple, God can work through us anyway. But, frankly, God shouldn’t have to do this.
So in today’s Gospel Jesus points out three powerful obstacles to His grace flowing through us to others: lost connections, leaping to conclusions, and lip service. All of these things lessen our effectiveness as disciples, prophets, and evangelizers sent out to make disciples of all the nations. Yes, God can use anything, but he shouldn’t have to.
Drawing above: Two sons, by Davis
The video below features the text of another parable of Jesus’ that speaks of a king who gave a banquet for his son and then summoned the invited guests to come because all was ready. Here, too, we must enter the banquet. As the sons, we are called to enter the vineyard to work. Will you go? How about your sons and daughters; will they be at Mass this weekend?
At the risk of inviting all the usual charges of being politically incorrect, I once again put before you the strange practice of burning food for fuel. The video at the bottom of the post details some of the human costs associated with the increasing use of corn, grains, and other crops for fuel.
There is a tendency for environmentalists of our time to think very narrowly about their issues. It is a praiseworthy thing to seek to reduce pollutants and other things that have negative environmental impacts. The Catechism summons us to good stewardship of the earth, the environment, and our natural resources.
However, the human cost of significant changes (to include higher taxes, the elimination of certain technologies altogether, and other things) should be part of the equation. This is especially true in terms of how it affects the developing world. Yet in my experience, the human cost is almost never presented honestly.
Whatever good intentions environmentalists have, the planet, the climate, and the environment seem to be the overwhelming focus of their concern, at least for the most radical of them. And if human beings are considered at all, we are collectively just a big problem: there are too many of us, we do lots of bad stuff, and it seems that the earth would be better off without us.
So here’s an edgy video, from the National Geographic video site, no less! For the record, let me say again that it is a bad idea to burn food for fuel. And if the video below is correct, it’s going to get worse unless we have an honest conversation and come to some consensus that burning food for fuel IS bad.
Stay tuned; this issue is bound to heat up. I pray that common sense will prevail over what is most certainly a bad idea, one which will harm the poor disproportionally.
I know that I normally use my Friday blog for more light-hearted fare, but this video is what popped up in my video queue today. I’m glad to see the concerns are spreading.
I have considered the task that God has appointed for the sons of men to be busied about. He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into their hearts, without man’s ever discovering, from beginning to end, the work which God has done (Eccles 3:10-11).
Somewhere in our hearts is something that the world cannot, and did not give us. It is something that is nowhere evident in the world, and yet, though not perceiving it, we still know it. This passage from Ecclesiastes calls it “the timeless.” We also often refer to it as eternity, or even infinity.
But where did this come from? The world is finite. Time on earth is serial. Things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We do not experience anything here of the timeless. Rather, everything is governed by the steady, unrelenting ticking of the clock. Things begin and end. Every verb we speak is time-based, rooted at some point in time but never able to break free of it. Everything is rooted in chronological time. But somewhere in our hearts we can grasp the timeless. It is hard to put into words for we know it at a very deep level. But, we do know it.
The experience of “forever” does not exist in this world, but it is there in our mind and heart. There is no way to engage in time travel here in this world. Yet instinctively we know that somehow we can. Science fiction and fantasy often feature going back to the past or forward into the future. The world could not possibly teach us this for we are locked into the present and have never actually traveled in time. But somehow we know we can do it.
Eternity comes from the Greek word “aeon,” which means the fullness of time. It is not just a long time, it is all time: past, present, and future all at once. Look at the dot in the center of your watch and notice how 10am may be in the past, 6pm in the future, and 2pm now, but at the center dot they are all really the same. This is aeon; this is eternity, the fullness of time; this is a picture of timelessness.
Where did we get it? The world cannot give it, for the world does not have it. The world is finite, limited; it is time-bound, not timeless. Where did we get it?
Maybe it’s from God.
This song speaks of another aspect of time that the Greeks called “kairos” which is that experience of the fittingness of certain things to certain times. Chronos is the Greek for “clock time” but kairos grasps that other mysterious dimension of time that somehow we know when “the time is right.”
One of the critiques that many make of the Church is that we are sometimes known more for what we are against than what we are for. This critique, and fear, exists even within the Church. A similar critique is made of God’s law, wherein some wonder, “Why are the Ten Commandments generally worded as negatives: ‘Thou Shalt not …’ ?”
It is a fact that, at least in modern culture, many prefer to say what they are for rather than what they are against. Somehow, being “positive” is valued over being “negative.” Thus, even in the tragic conflict over abortion, both sides declare that they are “pro” something, either life or “choice.” I am certainly “pro-life,” but as to the matter in question, I am anti-abortion. But most of us who do any media work are strongly cautioned to avoid the prefix “anti-” altogether.
In fact, even when a group gathers to denounce something (e.g., war, poverty, or taxes) the participants are called “protesters” (a word that refers to those who stand up for or witness to something) rather than “contesters” (a word that refers to those who stand or witness against something). Frankly, “contester” more accurately describes what is going on in a “protest.” If I am protesting higher taxes, I am against the idea, not for (“pro-”) it. But we are funny this way, and very sensitive about it. We don’t like to be perceived as being against things.
And of course this is problematic for a preacher of the Gospel, who needs to engage a culture that is increasingly heading to some very dark and sinful places. At some point we simply have to be willing to say that we are foursquare against many things and endure the “terrible” charges that we are “negative,” even if our overall goal is to affirm something that is better than the practice we are against. Thus we are against abortion because we are for life and the potential and dignity of the unborn. We are against fornication, pornography, adultery, and homosexual acts because we are for chastity and God’s vision for sexuality. We are against euthanasia because we are for the wisdom of the Cross and the glory that our life brings to God. We are against greed because we love the poor and think our excess should be shared with them in appropriate ways.
But at the end of the day, we DO have to be willing to say that we are against certain things. We will not always have the luxury of being able to give elaborate speeches that attempt to show how we are really “for” something else and therefore are not bad people or sour-faced “downers.” Our ego needs to be a little stronger so that we do not feel the need to always seem nice, pleasant, positive, and affirming. These all have their place, but they can also be pernicious enemies of the truth.
And this leads us back to the Ten Commandments, wherein eight of the ten unapologetically use the formulation “You shall not …” God is not all that worried that He might be perceived as being “against” something—and neither should we be.
But there is another reason for the negative formulation that is worth exploring as well. Simply put, it is often easier to say what something is not, than to describe what it is. The commandments are depicting love, but if I ask you to wholly and completely define love you’re going to have a difficult time, since love is so comprehensive and multifaceted.
Thus, if you ask me, “What does it mean to love God?” I could go on for pages and pages trying to describe it and its implications and I would barely scratch the surface. Alternatively, however, I could say, “Well, to love God is to stay faithful to Him by not sleeping with other gods or giving them my love and worship. To love God means that I will not disrespect His precious name, but will honor it for its precious dignity and for the sign of intimacy it is. To love God means that I will not fail to spend time with Him on Sunday and enjoy His blessings.
If you ask me “What does it mean to love my neighbor?” I am going to have a hard time saying all that it means. But surely I can say that if I love my neighbor I will not kill him; I won’t use her sexually; I won’t steal from or lie to him; I won’t covet her; I won’t greedily seek to possess what he has.
And thus God begins by telling us essentially what love is not, and then enriches the “shall nots” with examples that help to fulfill the vision. Thus “not killing” is more than merely not taking a life. It is letting go of all the things that lead to murder such as hatred, bitterness, mercilessness, ridicule, extreme competitiveness, and so forth. The “shall nots” lead to positive implications and a summons to freedom wherein one is set free from anger, hatred, bitterness, fear, and so forth.
This is essentially what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, His great moral treatise in which He speaks of fulfilling the law. To fulfill the law means to fill it full, to consider all the implications of the commandments and precepts.
It is also what I try to do in my new book, The Ten Commandments, wherein each commandment, though precise in its formulation, is seen in its richer implications. Pardon the shameless plug, but this blog post has its origins in a radio interview I did today with Matt Swaim on the Sonrise Morning Show. I go on the show about every two weeks, but today Matt was kind enough to interview me about my book.
The bottom line though has to be this: we need to expose the lie (or at least the fear) in our culture that being against things is always a bad thing. We need to have the courage to admit and even to be bold in saying that we oppose things. This, of course, does ultimately mean that we are also for some other thing. But even if we cannot fully proclaim all that we are for, which admittedly is hard to do, it is necessary to say what we oppose.
As for this video, I happened upon it as I was looking for the song “Signs” (Sign, sign, everywhere a sign …), a “protest” song against rules that was so typical of the rebellious ’70s. I found it, but it also has this humorous collection of strange signs. So enjoy the funny signs even though the song is emblematic of today’s “be nice,” and “don’t have any rules” mentality.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, To what shall I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.’ He goes on to remark that the people thought John the Baptist was crazy because he did not eat or drink, yet when Jesus both ate and drank they called Him a glutton and a drunkard. (see Matt 11:16-19).
Indeed, this world has many contradictory and bewildering standards.
One of the great human struggles is to become free from being defined by others, from being so much under the world’s judgment that we lack any personal conviction or deep, stable, and serene core.
An old African proverb says “If I don’t know who I am, anyone can name me.”
Somewhere in the midst of the world’s demands for conformity to its ephemeral standards, each of us must come to know the man or woman that God created us to be.
This does not mean, particularly in youth, that we do not seek guidance from people (especially elders) whom we trust. But in the end, there must be that very private journey with God that every human person makes. It is the journey to discover one’s true self, as God gently reveals.
It is to this deep truth that Jesus refers in the gospel referenced above. The world cannot be our measure. Too often its standards are passing, foolish, and highly inconsistent. To hearken to its cacophonous voice is a sure invitation to high anxiety and deep inner conflict.
There is a saying, A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.
Jesus, too, warns, “No one can serve two masters.” But, sadly, most of us try. And frankly, it is not merely two masters but two hundred.
Not so with Jesus.
Jesus resisted and even defied most of the ways in which people tried to define him. He was the Messiah, but He would not be the Messiah in any way they understood. He would not ride in on a war horse and usher in a bloodbath. He would not follow a career of conquest. He would die as a suffering servant. Neither would He simply be reduced to being the Bread King (Jn 6:15) or the medical miracle worker (Mk 1:38). Jesus was sure to hit the road and move on to the next town before He would let others label him as such. He came to bear witness to the truth and to save us, not so much from economic calamity, health problems, or political enemies, but rather from our very selves, from our own sinfulness.
No, Jesus would not be defined by this world. He was free from its grip; it had no power over Him. And to that same freedom the Lord ultimately summons us.
To be sure, this personal journey with the Lord, this journey to discover our true self, is not an invitation to hideous idiosyncrasies and sociopathic behavior. Holiness may in fact, and often does, startle this world. But it is not unnecessarily disruptive; it is not simply “weird.” Discovering our true self leads to serenity, a peace that this world cannot give, but also a peace that it cannot deny.
So, a man with one watch knows what time it is, but a man with two watches is never quite sure.
Whom are you watching? What time is it in your life? Is it a time of teenage conformity and capitulation to peer pressure? Or is it a time of serene and mature self understanding, rooted in the Father?
In yesterday’s post, I pondered the great drama of human life as Scripture sets it forth. We are caught up in a great and cosmic battle and must choose sides. There are two armies and no third way given. Sadly, most have lost any sense of the battle and of the drama of life, despite the battle lines being clearer than ever.
As a kind of follow-up to yesterday’s post it is valuable to examine how the drama of human decision is portrayed in an unlikely place: the parables. I say “unlikely” because most casual readers of the Bible tend to see the parables merely as interesting, entertaining stories. They are indeed interesting and entertaining, but they are deadly serious as well and they powerfully portray the drama of human life, the need to decide, and the consequences of our decisions. They carry very weighty messages and substantial warnings. Do not misconstrue their creative, pithy, memorable qualities as signs of superficial teaching.
Some of Jesus’ starkest warnings come in the parables, and in them, the drama of human life in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14) is vividly proclaimed. Indeed, the parables are MOSTLY about the drama and decisions of human life and the stance we take in the cosmic battle that rages around us. Our decisions point to our destiny. Of the 37 parables of Jesus, 20 are parables that remind us of the drama of our lives in the valley of decision and warn us of the consequences of our choices, choices that bring blessing or curse, rise or ruin, salvation or condemnation. Let’s review a quick summary of them in order of increasing intensity:
- The rich fool (Luke 12:16–21): This is a parable of a rich man whose land yielded a bountiful harvest and, rather than being generous with his surplus, he hoards it. God called him a fool and claimed his life that night. Jesus warns us therefore of the foolishness of living for passing, worldly things and that total loss is coming for those who are not rich in what matters to God.
- The wise and the foolish builders (Matthew 7:24–7; Luke 6:46–49): This is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, wherein the Lord describes the dramatic difference between those who follow His teachings and those who do not. Those who heed His Word are like those who build their houses on solid rock and are able to endure the storms that come. But the foolish, who do not heed His Word, are like those who build their houses on sand. For them, the result is total loss and destruction when the storm of judgment comes.
- The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3–9; Mark 4:3–9; Luke 8:5–8): Though God sows the seed of His Word abundantly. Some of it falls on the path and birds eat it up. Other seed falls among thorns, which choke it off. And still other seed falls on rocky soil and so withers due to the lack of roots. And here is the dramatic warning to those who harden their hearts to God’s Word or who allow the soil of their heart to be thinned or choked off by the world: you will not bear the necessary fruit. Some seed, however, does fall on rich soil and yields an abundant harvest. There is a dramatic difference in the results, and it is rooted in the disposition of our hearts.
- The parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24–30): God’s field of wheat is oversown by the weeds of Satan. (This is a dramatic description of the two armies on this earth.) Angry field hands propose pulling up the weeds but the owner cautions that the wheat might also be harmed. But though he instructs them to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest, there is a harvest, at which time the wheat will be gathered in but the weeds will be thrown into the fire. So there is a day of judgment, though not yet. The drama must still unfold but the final verdict will ultimately be rendered.
- The barren fig tree (Luke 13:6–9): This is another parable of patience, wherein extra time is given to an unfruitful fig tree. But the day of judgment is set, and if fruit is not found the tree will be cut down. And here, too, is the drama of our life: either we manifest the fruit of righteousness or we will be removed from the Lord’s field.
- The dragnet (Matthew 13:47 –50): The kingdom of God, the Church, is compared to a dragnet, which captures all sorts of things. The drama unfolds when the net is hauled ashore and there comes the judgment. Only what is good is retained; that which is unclean and worthless is cast aside.
- The parable of the counting of the cost (Luke 14:28–33): Jesus warns that discipleship is costly and that some are not able or are unwilling to finish once started. He uses the images of a building begun without resources to finish it, or of a king going to war when he knows he is outnumbered. And thus some will set off to be disciples but later realize that they do not have the resources or willingness to continue. And herein the Lord sets forth that discipleship is costly and the warfare is real. The implication of this is that some are willing to accept the cost while others are not. The road to salvation is narrow and few find it. The narrow way is the way of the Cross, and many turn back, instead preferring the wide road that leads ultimately to destruction.
- The unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35): A man who owes a huge debt has it forgiven, but refuses to forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow servant. The king then calls the man back and applies the same unforgiving standard to him that he used on his confrere. And thus the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us. Merciless is the judgment on one who has shown no mercy. And further, if we do not forgive the sins of others, neither will we find forgiveness from the Father. The choice to forgive and show mercy is a dramatic and crucial decision for us, one that will affect our final judgment in a powerful way!
- The prodigal son (Luke 15): A sinful son returns and is reconciled to his father. But in a dramatic twist, the other, “obedient” son grows bitter and refuses to enter his father’s house. Even more dramatically, the parable ends without us knowing if the obedient son ever entered or not. This is because you are that son and you must decide if you will enter the Father’s house on His terms or stay outside, brooding that God doesn’t do everything on your terms.
- The unjust steward (Lk 16:1-13): An unscrupulous steward has been discovered “cooking the books” and embezzling funds. But in the end, his craftiness is praised by Jesus even though it is wrong. The point being made is that most sinners are far more dedicated to their world than Christians are to the Kingdom. And here is set forth another example showing that too many are simply not willing to fight for and with the Kingdom, and are lost as much through apathy as through wickedness.
- The rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31): A rich man is insensitive to the poor and we are taught that such insensitivity and neglect is a damnable sin. The rich man lands in Hell. In the great drama of his life, the rich man preferred to be wealthy in the world rather than to store up treasure for himself in Heaven. So hardened is his heart that even though he is in torment in Hell, he does not ask to come to Heaven, but rather that Lazarus be dispatched to Hell to bring him water. The rich man has not changed. He still looks down on Lazarus and still prefers creature comforts to God and His kingdom. His heart was dramatically hardened, and so can ours be if we let sin, neglect, and insensitivity go unchecked.
- The wicked vineyard workers (Mat 21:33-41): The owner of a vineyard sends representatives to collect his share of the produce, but the wicked workers stone some and kill others. Finally, they kill the owner’s son. Next the owner comes and submits them to a bad end. And thus in the drama of this world, there are many who reject God’s call for a share in their hearts and stone or even kill those who prophetically call them to give God glory and to live holy lives. In rejecting His appointed prophets, they also reject Christ and will come to a bad end!
- The great banquet (Matt 22:1-14; Lk 14:15-24): A king holds a wedding feast for his son. But the invited guests make excuses and are too involved in worldly affairs to come even to so great an offering. The king grows angry and burns their town. He then goes off to invite others. Finally the banquet is filled, but there is one in attendance who refuses to wear the provided wedding attire. He is thrown into the outer darkness and we are taught that while many are called, few are chosen. And thus our decision to accept God’s invitation is critical. Either we accept the invitation and enter the feast or else a fiery end is in store for us. And even those of us who accept must wear the robe of righteousness that God provides or else risk being cast into the outer darkness. Our decisions are dramatic and they determine our destiny!
- The wise and the foolish virgins (Mat 25:1-13): Ten bridesmaids await the groom’s arrival. Five were wise and carried extra oil. Five were foolish and were unprepared when the groom arrived. The wedding went on without the foolish bridesmaids and when they finally returned, the groom said to them, “Depart from me, I know you not.” And here too is depicted the drama of our lives. We must live in readiness; the oil of our holiness must always be replenished and kept ready by prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and fellowship with the Church (Acts 2:42). Judgment day is coming! Keep your lamps trimmed and burning!
- The sheep and the goats (Mat 25:31-46): In a scene of the great judgment, the Lord welcomes the righteous sheep on his right to the glory of Heaven, but consigns the wicked goats on his left to the fires of Hell. While the passage emphasizes the corporal works of mercy and indicates that to neglect them is a damnable sin, the passage should not be taken to mean these will be the only matters adjudicated. But again, note how dramatic our decisions in life are, including the care of the poor and needy!
There are a few other parables to add to the list such as the curse of the barren fig tree and the parable of the talents. But allow these to illustrate.
Clearly, the Lord consistently sets before us the great drama of human life and decision. Our choices matter and build to a fundamental destiny. Thoughts beget deeds, deeds beget habits, habits beget character, and character begets destiny. This is the drama and dignity of our life.
And though consistently preached by Jesus in the parables and in countless other texts, the theme is rarely mentioned today in preaching. This must change for us who preach if we are to authentically announce the Gospel. For those who hear and heed, blessings await. For those who stubbornly refuse or sinfully neglect the message, grey doom awaits. This is the drama of a life not far from you.
Perhaps two final passages from Jesus: one a word of warning, the other a word of blessing:
Jesus said, “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (Mk 13:33-37).
Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing (Mat 24:44-47).
A grave deficiency of modern times is the loss of the sense that our lives are caught up in a tremendous, epic battle. And yet here we are living in the midst of a great drama—in the greatest story ever told.
Behind the scenes is a deadly enemy, one of whom many rarely speak: Satan. Yet he is active and involved, manipulating both the world and the flesh (our sinful nature). We are on the front lines of a fierce spiritual war, a war that is to blame for most of the casualties you see around you. Yes, fellow Christians, there is a dragon, the roaring lion—Satan—who seeks to devour our souls.
Ah! But there is also a Son, a Savior, who is born to us and whom we call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (cf Is 9:6). And He shall reign forever. His hand is outstretched, first on the cross, but now outstretched to you to save you and to draw you up out of the raging waters, to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light!
Will you take hold of His hand, or not? This is the decision—your decision—in the great drama of your life and of every life; it is your chapter in the greatest story ever told.
Yes, the battle rages all around us and we are swept up in it! It’s happening in our world, our culture, our families, and in our hearts. The sequence hymn from Easter says dramatically of it, Mors et vita duello; Conflixere Mirando (death and life at battle in a stupendous conflict)!
The Book of Joel vividly describes the great drama, not merely an eschatological battle, but a battle that is already around us in the decision we must make, in the war we must wage, with God’s grace, against the evil that is in and around us. It is a vivid and dramatic war and we must choose sides. And our decision will one day be revealed in the great judgment that is coming on this world.
Prepare war, stir up the mighty men! Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.” Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down thy warriors, O LORD. Let the nations bestir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great. Multitudes! Multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:9-14).
Text after text in the Bible describes the awesome drama and the great decision we must make, a decision on which hinges our very destiny. Here are just a few:
- I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you (Deut 30:19-20).
- Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own heart also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-36).
- Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I have told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM” (John 8:23-24).
- Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation (Matt 26:41).
- And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15).
- For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Eph 6:12-14).
- I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed! (Gal 1:4)
- Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 1:8).
- A great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heavens; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne … And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth … Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child … The dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (Rev 12, selected verses).
- “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” And they assembled them at the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon (Rev 16:15-16).
And so here we are in the Valley of Decision, in Hebrew, the Valley of Armageddon. Here is the drama of our life! Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! All of us have a decision to make, an army to join, a direction to choose! Tertium non datur (No third way is given). There are only two armies on the field of battle; there are no demilitarized zones, no sidelines. Choose an army! What will it be, light or darkness, grace or sin, Jesus or Beelzebub?
Yes, here is the immense drama in the greatest story ever told; it is our drama and our story.
And yet this drama is hardly ever discussed today. In the very times in which the drama and the contrast between the two ways has never been clearer, never been starker, there is near silence. If anything, our times are marked by boredom and a kind of dull lack of awareness of the battle that is raging around us. We have “spiritual ADHD,” endlessly fidgeting but never focusing on what matters. There is also a kind of “spiritual myopia,” in which the two armies are lost in the blur of perceived (but not real) “pluralism.”
Put plainly, if you don’t think that this drama is real and that the choice of one side or the other is required, if you think that the biblical texts I have cited are histrionic and hysterical, you have been deceived. You have been lulled to sleep by the spirit of this age. You’ve been deceived by Satan, as was Eve long ago when he said to her, “You surely will not die.”
All of us must wake up to the battle that rages about us, to the great drama in our life, a drama that is unfolding before our very eyes. If you insist on sleeping through the drama or ignoring the summons to wake up, beware! For Scripture says of such dreamers that there will come upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess 2:11-13).
Awaken to the drama! Choose the Lord! Be a soldier in the army of the Lord! Only Jesus can save us from this “present evil age.” His grace and mercy are there for us in abundance, but His respect for our freedom means that our choices matter, they build in one direction or the other. This is the drama of our life and is also our dignity. Scripture pronounces a great blessing on those who choose the Lord:
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen (Gal 1:1-2).
In tomorrow’s blog, I will explore how the themes of the drama and the warning are the basis of MOST of Jesus’ parables. There are sheep and goats, wise virgins and foolish ones, servants who are ready and those who are not, and so forth.
This is one of those parables that rock our world and our worldly way of thinking. And frankly, that is one of its purposes. We are tempted to side with the laborers who were hired first and who worked the longest. When we find out that they got paid the same as the men who only worked an hour the thought occurs to us that somehow this is unfair.
But, think very carefully before asking God to be “fair.” What we really should ask of God is that he be merciful. For if he were fair, we’d all be in Hell right now. The fact is, we have no innate capacity to stand before God in pure justice; we simply cannot measure up to that. It is only grace and mercy that will win the day for us. So be very careful about trying to play the fairness card on God. In fact, when we see Him being merciful to someone else, we ought to rejoice, for it also means that we might stand a chance.
There are other aspects of this Gospel that are important to learn from: the various dispositions of discipleship. As the parable unfolds, we can see five teachings. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
I. The AVAILABILITY of Discipleship – The text says, A landowner went at dawn to hire laborers to work in his field … He went later and found others standing idle … “Why do you stand here all day idle?”
Now it is clear that what we have described here are “day workers.” These were men who stood in public places hoping to be hired for the day. It was and still is a tough life. If you worked, you ate; if you didn’t, you’d have little or nothing to eat. They were called day laborers because they were hired on a day-to-day basis, only when needed. This is a terrible form of poverty for its uncertainty and instability. Men like these were and are the poorest of the poor.
But note how their poverty, their hunger, makes them available. Each morning they show up and are ready, available to be hired. Their poverty also motivates them to seek out the landowner and indicate that they are ready and willing to work. The well-fed and the otherwise employed do not show up; they are not available. There’s something about poverty that makes these men available. Because their glass is empty, it is able to be filled.
But we are these men. We are the poor who depend on God for everything. Sometimes we don’t want to admit that, but we are. And every now and then it is made plain to us how poor, vulnerable, and needy we really are. And this tends to make us seek God. In our emptiness, poverty, and powerlessness suddenly there is room for God. Suddenly our glass, too often filled with the world, is empty enough for God to find room. And in our pain we stand ready for God to usher us into the vineyard of His kingdom. An old gospel song says, Lord, I’m available to you, my storage is empty and I am available to you. It is our troubles that make us get up and go out with the poor to seek the Lord and be available to Him. When things are going too well, Lord knows where we are to be found! Another gospel song says, Lord don’t move my mountain but give me the strength to climb it. Don’t take away my stumbling blocks but lead me all around. ‘Cause Lord when my life get a little too easy you know I tend to stray from thee.
Yes, we might wish for a trouble-free life, but then where would we be? Would we seek the Lord? Would we make ourselves available to God? Would we ever call on Him at all?
II. The AUTHORITY of Discipleship – The text says, The LandOWNER said, “Go into my vineyard” … HE sent them into HIS vineyard.
Notice that it is the landowner who calls the shots. Too many who call themselves the Lord’s disciples rush into His vineyard with great ideas and “biggie-wow” projects that they have never really asked God about. But this passage teaches us that entrance into the vineyard requires the owner’s permission. If we expect to see fruits (payment for the work) at the end of the day, we have to be on the list of “approved workers.”
Fruitful discipleship is based on a call from the Lord. Scripture says, Unless the Lord builds the House, they that labor to build it labor in vain (Ps 127:1). Too many people run off and get married, take new jobs, accept promotions, start projects, and so forth without ever asking God.
But true discipleship requires the Lord’s call first: “Go into my vineyard.” Got a bright idea? Ask God first. Discern His call with the Church and a good spiritual director, guide, or pastor.
III. The ALLOTMENT of Discipleship - The text says, The vineyard owner came at dawn, 9:00 AM, Noon, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM.
We may puzzle as to why God calls some early and others late; it’s none of our business. But he does call at different times. And even those He calls early, He does not always ask to do everything right now. There is a timing to discipleship.
Moses thought he was ready at age 40, and in his haste he murdered a man. God said, “Not now!” and made him wait until he was 80.
Sometimes we’ve got something we want to do but the Lord says, “Not yet.” And we think, “But Lord, this is a great project and many will benefit!” But the Lord says, “Not yet.” And we say, “But Lord, I’m ready to do it now!” And the Lord says, “Not yet.”
Sometimes we think we’re ready, but we’re really not. An old gospel song says, God is preparing me. He’s preparing me for something I cannot handle right now. He’s making me ready, just because he cares. He’s providing me with what I’ll need to carry out the next matter in my life. God is preparing me. Just because he cares for me. He’s maturing me, arranging me, realigning my attitude. He’s training me, teaching me, tuning me, purging me, pruning me. He’s preparing me.
IV. The ABIDING of Discipleship – The text says, When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to the foreman, “… summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.”
Notice that the wages are paid in the evening and in the order determined by the landowner (God). The lesson is simple: we’ve got to stay in the vineyard. Some people start things but do not finish them. But if you’re not there at six o’clock, no pay.
Scripture says that we must persevere. Jesus says, But he who perseveres to the end will be saved (Mat 24:13). We also read, To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life (Rom 2:7). And again, You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised (Heb 10:36).
Yes, we must work till evening comes. Saying that we had faith and received all our sacraments when we were young will not suffice. We have to work until evening. An old spiritual says, Some go to Church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out. How about you?
V. The ATTITUDE of Discipleship - The text says, Those hired first grumbled … “We bore the heat of the day and burdens thereof.”
Notice how the early workers think of their entrance into the vineyard and its labors as a “burden.” Of course the vineyard is really the Kingdom of God. And it remains true that many lukewarm “cradle Catholics” consider the faith to be a burden and think somehow that sinners “have all the fun.” Never mind that this is completely perverse thinking; it is held by many anyway, whether consciously or unconsciously.
But consider the laborers hired last. Were they having a picnic? Not exactly. Most were resigning themselves to the fact that they and their families would have little or nothing to eat that night. Similarly, most sinners are not “living the life of Riley.” Repeated and life-long sin brings much grief: disease, dissipation of wealth, regret, loss of family, addiction, and so forth. No matter what they tell you, sinners do not have all the fun.
Further, being a Christian is not a burden. If we accept it, we receive a whole new life from Christ: a life of freedom, purity, simplicity, victory over sin, joy, serenity, vision, and destiny.
How do you view the Christian life? Is it a gift, a treasure beyond compare no matter its difficulties? Or is it a burden, a bearing of labor in the heat of the day? Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God. The passage goes on to describe our “works” not as burdens but as something God enables us to do: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).
So here are five dispositions of discipleship, which the Lord teaches in this parable.
Note well what the Lord teaches, for too often we want to decide what it means to be a disciple. Beware, for the worst kind of disciple is the one who gets out ahead of the Lord and tries to define his or her own role. Jesus is Lord; let Him lead. So, some final questions for you: Are you a disciple who is glad at being called, and the earlier the better? Or are you like the disciples who grumbled at having to do all the work in the heat of the day? Is discipleship delightful or dreary for you?
This song says, “I’m available to you…” And it reminds us that the owner of the vineyard still seeks souls to enter His vineyard. He wants to use your voice to say to someone: “You, too, go into my vineyard!”
Here’s a little commercial that requires very little decoding. A woman enters an office and, spying a very nice pen, has thoughts of petty theft. Just as she is about to depart, stolen pen in hand, a voice from above says, “Don’t! It’s a trap!” She looks up to see a co-worker swinging in a net that has swooped him up.
And so, too, for us. When temptation comes our way we often hear that voice “from above” saying, “Don’t! It’s a trap!” But the voice we hear is not that of some fellow sinner—it is the voice of God.
For Scripture says,
Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).
And the Catechism says,
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) # 1776).
Yes, there is that small, still voice of God, who, in the midst of our temptations, reminds us that the sinful pleasures that the world, the flesh, and the devil propose are ultimately traps and lies. And whatever good we may imagine in them (through vain reasoning) is ultimately a deception.
Don’t! It is a trap.