Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
Show of hands: how many of us love to get free stuff? OK. Now, how many of us believe that nothing is ever really free? There's always a catch, right? “Free gift with purchase.” “Free newsletter. Just give us your email address.” Here in New Orleans we have the famous custom of the lagniappe (lan-yap) –a freebie, something extra in the bag just for being you. But you only get the lagniappe—that 13th doughnut—b/c you bought a dozen in the first place. Walk into the Cafe du Monde and ask for a beignet lagniappe w/o buying an espresso, and they'll bounce you out on your bon temps! It's this sort of deceptive advertising that's led us to want free stuff and at the same time believe that free stuff is never really free. Unfortunately, this all-too-American attitude infects our faith as well. How many times have you heard that we do not earn, borrow, beg, or steal our salvation? We are freely saved and do nothing whatsoever to earn our freedom. However, we still harbor the dark suspicion that we're being lied to, that God is just waiting for us to trip up so He can jump out from behind the door and shout, “GOTCHA! Now, go to Hell!” That suspicion is at the root of Jesus' parable of the disgruntled laborers. These hard working men begrudge the owner's generosity to the latecomers. And that's exactly what we do when we mistrust the gift of our freedom.
The disgruntled workers begrudge the landowner’s generosity in paying full wages to the latecomer laborers. Why? For some reason they feel that their own labor and their own wages are diminished by the largess of the vineyard owner. Somehow their day’s labor is dirtied. Their dollar is devalued. They worked harder and longer under the fiery sun, so they deserve more than those who sauntered in at the last hour and barely broke a sweat! These guys are upset b/c they are working out of a very human notion of justice, a temptation, I think, to believe that compensation is earned; to get what is owed you, what you deserve. And that makes perfect sense if we are talking about just labor practices in the marketplace. But remember, this is a parable about salvation and holiness not a lesson on capitalist economics. Jesus isn't giving us a model of setting up a union or a business plan for earning a profit.
Think about this: Is it a human notion of justice you want applied to your eternal life? An economic balance? Do you truly want what you deserve? What you’ve earned in this life? Do you want the Father to give you a just compensation for your life’s work in His name? The whole point of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is that we won’t be given what we deserve (thank God!); we won’t receive from the Father what is owed to us (thank God!). He owes us nothing. All the work we do we do for His greater glory, and He still owes us nothing. Do we want justice from God? Or do we want mercy? We want mercy. And Christ has bought that mercy for us and given it to us freely. There's an eager little devil out there waiting to pounce on our witness to the Lord. He will offer us an opportunity to sin and delight the Liar. What is this temptation? It is the temptation to believe that we work for the Lord out of our own generosity, out of our own time, out of our own resources, and we are therefore entitled to a greater reward when we outwork our neighbors. My time, my resources, my talents belong to God. And so do yours. Our freedom is a gift. All that we do in God's name we do with His gifts for His glory. Because without Him we are nothing.
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