On Sunday there was much scurrying around under the big horse chestnut tree outside the abbey church. My sons were searching for the spoil of the winds that we have been weathering just recently. They were looking for conkers and were very pleased as they filled their pockets. Strangely, they do not use them as my friends and I used them when I was their age. We played conkers by suspending them on the end of boot laces and took in turns trying to smash our adversary's prize conker. Instead they find all sorts of other ways of playing with them. On Sunday they lined them up along the path to the front door and weaved in and out of them. They also used them to make designs and patterns in the garden. Anyway I haven't taught them the game I played yet - perhaps I lived a more violent childhood? But who know's - if I come to church with sores around my knuckles you know what I have been doing!
Sermon for the 25th Sunday per annum
“The early bird catches the worm” - so says the English proverb. In the parable, the early workers had arrived at the marketplace early and had been hired for the day to earn the normal wage for a labourer: one denarius. As they worked in the vineyard so more workers arrived throughout the day as the owner went searching for more – presumably because it was harvest time and there was only limited time to bring it in. At the end of the day the first workers were paid what was agreed. But the early bird workers were grumpy and they complained. Shouldn't they have gotten more than those who had arrived at the eleventh hour? The parable of the workers in the vineyard offends our sense of fairness.
“It is not fair” is the oft repeated phrase of most children, and parents understandably find it infuriating at times. My stock reply now is “Life is not fair – get used to it.”
Sometimes my reaction might be wrong – I am just being grumpy. However, I think we need to be very careful when we feel something is unfair. We can all too easily jump to conclusions – to think it is an offence against justice. We need to take a moment to reflect and examine our true intentions; we might realise that what has been offended is not justice but something in us – like the first workers in the vineyard, selfish motives can loom large. “Fairness” can hide self-centredness.
The Holy Father welcomed a new British Ambassador to the Vatican, and took the opportunity to speak out about the danger of relativism in our society. The Pope echoed what he had said in his speech in Parliament during his visit to this country last year. Relativism does not tend to lead to freedom, justice and compassion, but rather tends to lead to frustration, despair, selfishness and disregard for the life and liberty of others. Frustration because people are not getting what they want ; despair because they are not achieving their goals ; selfishness because their perspective is centred on themselves ; and disregard for others which flows from selfishness. The Holy Father rightly identifies the malady of our Western society, and challenges the post-modern embrace of relativism.
For the relativist everything is based on one's own perspective. It purports to lead to respect, but in fact leads to self-centredness.
As believers in God, who is both good and just, indeed is the source of justice and goodness, and so we believe that the perspective we need in order to know whether something is right or wrong, is the divine perspective rather than dwelling on our subjective feelings. Yes God can speak the truth in our hearts but that does not mean our feelings mirror God's thoughts. The prophecy of Isaiah we heard today makes that very clear:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Is 55
So if our thoughts are indeed not God's thoughts how are we to decide if something is right or wrong? The answer is that God has revealed Himself to us, supremely through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit who leads the Church into all truth. So we receive guidance about what is right or wrong (ie morals) from God through the revelation of the divine truth in Jesus Christ, through the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
This we know is what we are taught by the church, but over and over again we are tempted to think differently. The world we live in, the contemporaries we interact with, the society we live in – thinks very differently. The divine perspective is rejected or abandoned.
The very opposite was true for St Paul who said in today's epistle, “For to me to live is Christ.” Let us just think about that for a moment. For St Paul, instead of his perspective being wrapped up in himself, it was entirely centred on Christ. He was not conformed to the world, but God's Word had renewed and transformed His mind.
The very great danger with relativism is not only the immoral life of selfishness, frustration and disregard for others, but the idolatry that results from it. For in the place of God we elevate ourselves. We worship not God but our own selfish desires and personal feelings.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is not just warning us to avoid becoming self-centred, but it is warning us about shipwrecking our salvation. The image of the vineyard at harvest time might well also remind us about our own day of reckoning. And like the first workers in today's parable who grumble over their employer's generosity, so we can lose our perspective if we think we have done anything to earn the Father's gift of salvation. None of us have earned salvation, or can earn salvation. Salvation is a gift – all we can do is so dispose ourselves to receive it – to worship God who alone can give us salvation, and seek to remove anything that gets in the way between ourselves and God.
If we truly understand that deep in our hearts, then instead of grumbling about others who receive the generous mercy of God, we instead should rejoice in wonder and marvel with the Angels, that God has shown His mercy like He has upon us unworthy servants. Amen.