Saturday, September 17, 2011

"The first shall be last, and the last shall be first": God's generosity (Reflections on the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matt 20:1-16)

The seminary I attended in Belgium stood next to a church where a man by the name of Damien De Veuster is buried. A story is told that as a young man, Damien had once applied to the same seminary and wanted to become a priest. But he failed all the admissions exams and was consequently turned away. No one really heard much about him after that—until many years later when his remains were brought back to Belgium from Molokai in Hawaii where as a young priest he served the island's
small leper colony and eventually contracted the disease himself.

Years after his death, that same man was made a saint by Pope John Paul II himself who came all the way from Rome to honor the man they were calling the ‘hero of Molokai’. Thousands of pilgrims now visit his grave, which is now a shrine. And all the time they pass by the gate of our seminary, which many years ago, had supposedly turned away a future saint. (Whether true or apocryphal, the story still serves to make an important point—something of which today’s Gospel reading is keen to remind us.)

God’s ways are different from ours. If you consider the gospel story, it does seem unfair that the men who only worked for a few hours should receive the same pay as those who worked the whole day. But justice isn’t the point of the story. The story isn’t about fairness or unfairness. And the key to understanding that is when Jesus says: “Are you envious because I am generous”?

The story is about God’s generosity. It’s about the way God deals with us and the way he asks us to deal with each other. The generosity shown by the landowner in the gospel is not like any kind of generosity we know. He treated everyone in the same way—those who came first, and those who came last.

The world sees things differently. It measures generosity; it carefully picks those to whom it shall bestow it. The world loves winners. It has no time for losers. The brightest student gets the scholarship and the great job offers. The best athlete is honored with fame and fortune. The effective manager rises in rank very quickly. Even in the church, the intelligent and able administrator and fundraiser becomes a monsignor or bishop quickly.

The world has no time for those who come last, who aren’t lucky or bright or wealthy or successful. In today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to ask ourselves, shall we act in the way the world does?

If honoring the best is meant to inspire and encourage us to imitate them, then it’s good. But if honoring only the best makes us forget the weak and those who have fallen through the cracks, then we fail in generosity. And we forget that before God, we are all weak and sinful, but he treats us all in the same way.

There’s a commercial on TV that starts by saying: “In this world, there are winners… and losers”. And that is true. There are persons that the world sees as failures. Jesus, however, is telling us that with God, there’s no such thing as a loser or a failure.

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. God treats us all in the same way—with generosity, with kindness, and with acceptance. God will never turn us away like our seminary turned away St. Damien De Veuster because he wasn’t bright enough.

When I was first assigned to teach in seminary, I was very strict and demanding of my students. There was this kid who always failed my quizzes and exams. And I remember flunking him in the final oral exam. But he kept trying. He kept coming back. He refused to leave the seminary because he failed my course.

The next time he had to face me again to take the exam, I asked him the exact question I had asked before. When he failed to give a satisfactory answer again, I was furious. “This is the second time I’ve asked you that question! And you still can’t give an acceptable answer. I simply don’t know what to do anymore. Do you want to fail a second time!?” He looked at me, tears almost welling up in his eyes. “Father”, he said, “you’ve already failed me twice. This is the third time I’m taking your exam. I’m sorry if my answer’s still unacceptable. God knows I’ve tried as hard as I can”.

I was stunned. He was a fine young man, not very academically-gifted, but I knew he worked hard as a student - even if his intellectual abilities weren't stellar. I knew he'd be a hard-working priest, and a loving and understanding one too. I let him go and finally gave him a passing mark, but not after having reminded him: "When you become a priest one day, remember to show kindness to those who through no fault of their own, fail to make the mark". "Yes, Father, I won't forget. Thank you", he replied.

If God could be so generous to forgive me for at times being too demanding, then I should be as generous in treating someone whose only fault is that he wasn’t bright enough.

When I came home a few summers ago, that same young man was one of the students who greeted me when I visited the seminary. He has now been ordained a priest, and from what I hear, a very generous one.

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. The generosity of God is the same for all of us. With him, there are no losers, because he loves each of us the same.

If he can be so generous to us despite all our failures and sins, should we not be the same towards others?

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)