Reflecting on the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, Tom discusses the need to discern and be attentive to our Primary vocation in daily life, the place where God calls us.
Aug 2009 2757 words.
I have been asked to share with you some reflections on that over familiar story that Jesus told about the owner of the vineyard and his job creation scheme for local unemployed workers.
Last week I asked a priest friend of mine what he would do if he had been asked to talk about a story which Jesus told in one way for one purpose, which Matthew re –told in another way for another purpose and which Pope John Paul tells in a third way for a third purpose – one which would surprise both Matthew and Jesus. My friend said; ‘I should tell them just that!” So I do, starting with the latecomer, as the parable suggests.
John Paul focuses on the fact that the landowner calls us as labourers in his vineyard where the harvest is ready.
Do we think of the vineyard as the church or as all our neighbourhood and world?
* Last year we had a meeting of monks at a parish near Preston. At mid-day we were treated to hot–pot in the club. And afterwards the parish priest explained that the parish was blessed with an excellent caterer who had come from being catering officer at Leyland Motors. I asked a priest next to me: “Do you think the parish is more blessed by having the caterer
in the parish club than at Leyland Motors.?” He answered; “That is a real dilemma for all of us not least the man himself. On the one hand we are urged to build up the parish community life: on the other hand we need to affirm people’s vocations as servants of the Kingdom at home and at work.”
I am quite sure that each of us here today recognises this dilemma, in one way or another, lay people in one way, clergy in another. And I suggest that, like all lively dilemmas, there is no neat answer to it. After all, we are living in a world which is at the same time the dwelling place of God and yet alienated from him. Our local church is not a spiritual enclave for God but is a place where the God who is nowhere absent can be named and celebrated.
We shall return to that, but for now let me share another aspect of God’s call to each of us.
I was making a retreat with the Cistercian monks in Northern Ireland. One day the abbot came in, to talk and we got to discussing what ‘salvation’ is. He said he had been helped, for many years, by a simple phrase of Thomas Aquinas: “Consentire est salvari “- to consent is to be saved. To consent at each moment to the known will of God. Just that. There is nothing extra, like a spiritual icing, on top of that.
I asked what he meant. Well, he had just been replying to a letter from one of the many sisters who used to write to him. Because of other matters awaiting his attention, and because he had an Irish tendency to wordiness, he knew when he started that he should restrict his reply to one side of a sheet. After three sides he eventually signed off. And that, Thomas, was not ‘consentire est salvari’.
That may sound trivial to you. But the abbot was giving a little everyday case of an all-embracing principle. Whatever we are about, wherever and with whoever, there is a truth and a love calling to us. We need to be attentive and discerning as to what it is: it is what God is calling us to. Our vocation is to listen to how God is calling and to respond; that is ‘consentire’ And this does not happen more in the parish club than it does in Leyland Motors canteen.
We have, in a special way, to be attentive to the special call that God gives us personally. As it were, to ’name’ our primary vocation and let other things be secondary to it. You will remember an example of that in the Acts of the Apostles; there were difficulties over the distribution of welfare to some of the widows and orphans in Jerusalem. But the Twelve realised that such work would draw them from their primary vocation, so Stephen and the others were appointed to run the Greek speaking part of the church and see to the distribution.
Another example; after the Vatican Council the Church made a remarkable call on religious orders to clarify the specific character of their vocations, and then gently but firmly move away from other things, however good in themselves, in order to provide the life of the church with their own specific gift.
All of us need to do something like that. As a mother or a father, as a husband or a wife, as a single person; at home, at work, as a bishop, or a monk………we need to discern and embrace our primary calling, be attentive to it, nurse and cuddle it. God blesses us where he calls us.
It is so easy to get caught up in a jumble of activities, one thing after another. But if attentiveness to God is not present, then we shall be very busy, efficient, active in our deanery, parish and diocese, but it will not bear fruit. We have to learn the art of assessing all activity in the context of, from the viewpoint of, the primary vocation God gives us. I am not for a moment suggesting that we should not be active in the parish, the pastoral congress or wherever (would that more people were), but the life and liturgy of our local church should not be a substitute for peoples primary calling, but the place where it is affirmed and celebrated.
This attentive discerning, can of course, be painful. Our primary calling may not be what we are very good at, and we may rightly think other things are more important. We need to develop, ask for, a certain sense of being content where God calls us. Where he calls, there he blesses.
A final word about attentiveness; Jesus kept telling his followers to stay awake, not to settle back and drift along with the flow of things. The gift of attentiveness is our cooperation with God’s Spirit poured out on our hearts which enlivens us to truth and reality. It will therefore give us a critical eye on the falsities we live in. Indeed, it will make us feel like strangers, even fools, among people we long to love and be at home with.
This dis-ease, this dis-satisfaction, is, I am sure, a sign that God’s Kingdom is becoming real to us. And it can be very painful, making us an enigma to those we live with, and even to ourselves. We are no longer quite sure what is going on or where we belong. Of course, we always said that we have no abiding city that we are in the world but not of it. But when we find it’s for real it can be very disconcerting:
St Matthew tells the parable of the landowner and labourers to warn long–stay Christians, who were hired early and worked through the heat of the day, not to resent God’s delight in calling others who seem to get off lightly. He is warning Christians to avoid attitudes of “We’re the real thing, so why is God acting freely among other people?”
A story is told about Noah. When he came out of the ark and saw the whole world devastated, Noah was angry with God.
“If you have destroyed the world because of its sin and foolishness then why create it in the first place?”
And God was equally angry:
“Listen, when I threatened disaster in Abraham’s day, he pleaded and interceded for the people.
When I threatened disaster in Moses’ day, he pleaded and interceded for the people. And disaster was averted.
But when I discoursed at some length with you, I hoped that you would intercede, but no. All you did was to build an ark to save yourself and your family. That’s why disaster befell the people.”
Many of us grew up in an ark-of-salvation church. We were safe and sound simply by being on board. And we peered out through the portholes at those who were neither safe nor sound simply by being adrift.
In fact, none of us really thought that, let alone lived by it; but somehow we thought that’s how we were meant to think.
Nowadays we feel much more able to admit, with St Augustine, that God knows many whom the church knows not, and the church knows many whom God knows not. After all we have non-Christian neighbours in our street, or mates at work, who are more honest and more selfless than many in our parish, indeed than we ourselves. We can freely admit that God’s Spirit is not confined to our boat.
So the question for us now is; why be a Christian at all? And what is the church for?
To start with, the parish is not the local branch of a sect. It is rather a community which recognises the God who goes unrecognised, celebrates the God who goes uncelebrated, names the God in people’s midst whom they know not. A community too which names the sin and injustice where God is denied, and which knows how to suffer and grieve in solidarity with people who are wounded.
The church, our parish locally or the wider church is not a sect. There have always been pressures, down through its history, to make it a sect – especially when seriously threatened or when enthusiasts can accept nothing but perfection. But it is not the true nature of the church to be sectarian.
The images of Jesus cannot be bettered; we are leaven in the dough, and it is not the task of leaven to make all the dough into leaven. It is not the task of evangelism to make all the world Roman Catholic. We are in God’s world, the parish in its locality, the church in the nation and the world, as leaven in the dough.
We are salt in the world – in the sense of salt as a preservative to prevent food going rotten.
We are a lamp in a room, not as a searchlight but as a light which simply by being there cannot but help light the room.
All these images work not by making the rest into themselves.
They work simply by being themselves in the right context. They do not self-consciously bear fruit. Our primary calling is to be what we are called to be. Leaven, salt, lamps, and the vine branches in that other parable, all bear fruit by their own dynamic.
For most of us, who are called to be disciples rather than apostles, mission and evangelism happens, largely unintended, out of being a faithful presence amongst people.
And so we come to why Jesus told the story! Nearly all of Jesus’ stories were told to get across what sort of God his Father is. I think Jesus assumed we would understand our calling if we understand the God who calls.
So this story is of a landowner going to unemployed workers in a society without the dole or any social benefits. The landowner calls the late ones partly because of the harvest being gathered and partly because if they are not called, they will starve. And the payment is the same for the late and early comers because it is based on their need, not their merit.
The picture of God is of one who has compassion on vulnerable workers whose families will starve if there is no wage. A God who overrides the narrow logic of merit and productivity deals.
Jesus was addressing people who thought they had a claim on God on account of their virtue. He teases these religious people out of that attitude: as long as they see God that way, they will never see God as he truly is. The whole way Jesus behaved – his free association with sinners, his challenging and teasing the socially or religiously virtuous, and so on-all was a direct result of the way he knew God his Father to be.
*There is in the South of France, a large lay community founded on Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and compassion. Many years ago, its founder –to –be, Lanza Del Vasto, went to Gandhi to propose such a venture. He suggested that it was even more important in western culture than it was in India, that indeed it was urgent, and also that he was a suitable man to get it going……………… Gandhi agreed with all that, but then said, you have not asked the only question that really matters. The only question? Yes, you have not asked whether God is calling you to it. If you go ahead on your own reasoning, all of which certainly makes sense, in the end it will come to nothing. You will be acting out of your own energy and not God’s energy. You must wait until you can be quite sure that God is calling you. Then you will know that it is by God’s energy that you are operating.
Lanza Del Vasto had to wait for ten years for that!
A thing can be a good idea, it may be very important and you may be very suited for it, but if you rush ahead without discerning whether it is God’s will, you will be working from the wrong energy. We all have to go beyond doing just what we think is important, or we are good at, and learn discernment, learn to pray, to ponder, to discuss, to wait on God.
The question Gandhi put is a crucial one for all of us. If we go ahead on our own understanding and our own energy, however correct and high-minded that may be, we shall end up living by our merits and our virtue. And that is a real hazard in our culture today.
We live in a world where cleverness, wealth and power (which are all gifts of God) are increasingly treated as signs of virtue and merit... Anything they achieve is bound to be of God – who is so lucky to have the virtuous labouring in his vineyard, building his kingdom for him.
The assumption is that if one is not clever or wealthy or powerful one is somehow not virtuous. Jesus challenged that assumption head on. He would allow no one to think of prosperity as a sign of virtue. He demanded that we go ‘beyond such virtue’ and learn to appreciate the divine largesse, the over abounding foolishness of God. To hand over our claims to cleverness, wealth or power, and indeed our virtue too, until like the last comers to the vineyard, we can appreciate the Father of Jesus as God of mercy and compassion, who relates to us in our poverty and need, not our virtue and merit.
We have to hand over all our abilities as we hand over the bread and wine at mass, and then – in God’s irony – we receive them back transfigured! All things, such as cleverness or enterprise, can be things of God, but only when we cease to claim them. Only then do they enable us to be like God in compassion for others. Only then do we discover what it is to live, not buy our own energy but by the gifted energy of God himself. We already carry within us the pledge of this, the down payment of God’s Kingdom within and among us, the Holy Spirit……… Let us be attentive.
We re-affirm: -
God knows us better than we know ourselves,
loves us better than we can love ourselves,
and is more concerned and able
to draw us into union with himself.
Christian faith is not about our belief in God
but about God’s belief in us
our confidence lies not in our fidelity
but in God’s fidelity to us.
There is no situation we can be in,
and no people we can be with,
where God was not before we were.
Mission and ministry do not bring God
to where he is not,
but celebrate and respond to God,
who was there before us,
and struggle for his justice and compassion
where his presence is denied.