Sunday, October 4, 2020

Priests With Crushed Hearts in the Master's Vineyard

 I don't get to post too often these days, but I had Mass today at St. John's Seminary, so I thought I would post my homily. The Gospel for the day was the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-43). Preaching at the seminary is a bit different because it is directed towards men who are studying to be priests and so the priesthood often plays a bit part. Nonetheless, I hope that it is . . . fruitful . . . for others too.

“Father, what you said in your homily brought me back to confession after many years.”  Someday, you will all hear something like that, and your heart will soar. You will also hear things like:

“Father, because of you, we decided not to abort our baby.” 

“Father, you saved our marriage.” “Father, you helped me enter the seminary.” “Father, you literally saved my life.” 

When a priest hears words like these, he cannot help but be filled with a deep sense of humble and joyful gratitude. Sometimes those words follow upon very little effort on our part. Other times, they are the fruit of what feels like epic battles of prayer, fasting, and extraordinary pastoral accompaniment. Although the joy of the outcome can be awesome, we can also sometimes feel exhausted from the intense labor that went into it.  

Priestly ministry, however, isn’t always so successful. I have also heard the devastating words, “Father, we appreciate what you’ve said and done for us, but we’ve decided to end the pregnancy.” “Father, I appreciate what you’ve said, but I am going to leave my wife and kids because I need to think about myself and my happiness.” And to my shock, I’ve heard more than once, “Father, thank you for coming to see me, and I know I am about to die, but I’m not sorry for my sins and I refuse to go to Confession.” 

I can recall occasions in my life as a priest when I have poured my whole self into a situation, given what I considered to be excellent counsel, implored God’s help, and seemingly did everything right, only to watch the person choose the wrong path. Sometimes it felt like I had organized the perfect rescue mission and executed it with military like precision. But, at the very last second, the person in danger refused to stretch out his or her hand, and instead allowed themselves to fall into the dark abyss. 

Some of these memories came to my heart as I prayed about today’s Gospel.  

Quite often, it is what appears to be very insignificant lines in the Gospel that  most strike me. Today is like that. At the beginning of the Gospel Jesus says, “Hear another parable.” 

“Hear another parable.” How many miracles had Jesus already performed? How many beautiful teachings had he already expressed? How many parables had he already spoken? And yet, some of his listeners still rejected him and their hearts became even more hardened. How many times they refused his extended hand! In the face of this rejection, what does Jesus do? He says, “Hear another parable.” When he says, “Hear another parable,” it is as though we are already seeing the parable take flesh before our very eyes. Rejected repeatedly, he tries again. 

God allows himself to be rejected and humiliated. His vineyard is watered with his tears and with the Blood of His Son. We all like to be successful. And when we win someone over to Christ, it really is awesome. When we hit a homerun in a homily, absolve a serious sinner, bring someone back to the Church, administer Viaticum to the dying . . . these things are truly awesome.  

Jesus, however, entrusts us with even more. He allows the priest to share in an intimate way with his own rejection. If the vineyard were merely ours, the joys of our successes would be less so. And, the sufferings of our failures would be deprived of any meaning. But we are tenants. We are privileged tenants. The vineyard is his, and the wine produced in this vineyard is so much richer because it is His wine. He—like the grape that is crushed—allows himself to be crushed by the hardened hearts of his listeners. 


I would like to propose three things that would help all of us to be better workers in the Lord’s Vineyard:

The first is a willingness to risk being close to others. This risk will often demand that we place ourselves in situations where we well might be crushed. We might invest ourselves with heroic efforts to helping someone, only in the end for them to say, “No” to Christ, say “No” to the Gospel,” and to say “No,” to the truth and to their own happiness. In the face of such rejection, apparent failure, and our own sorrow, we need a heart that is ready to say, “Hear another parable.” We need to beg the Lord for this kind of heart. A heart that is willing to live our humanity and our fatherhood close to others.  

The second is a spirit of poverty. Today—the Fourth of October—is usually the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi, known especially for his commitment to the evangelical counsel of poverty. As priests, we must always see ourselves as poor tenant farmers. The successes and the failures that we will experience are not ultimately ours. They belong to the Lord. When we say, “Hear another parable,” when we try again to help someone, when we experience the intense joy of winning a soul for Christ or when we taste the bitter suffering of being rejected, we do not own these things. These belong to the Lord. In our poverty, we must give these back to the Lord. We are always poor before the Lord, and we are always poor before the freedom of those whom we serve.  

And this brings me to the third thing. In order to be willing to be close to others and to live that closeness with a spirit of poverty, we must have a profound and humble prayer life. When, at the end of the day, the harvest is ready, we must open the gate of our heart and allow the master of the vineyard to take what is rightfully his. Our greatest treasure is not what we accomplish in the vineyard. Our greatest treasure is the joy of giving to the master of the vineyard what belongs to him. At the end of each day—and at the end of our life—it is in this intimate moment of friendship when we speak heart to heart with our friend in prayer, that we entrust back to him all of those whom he has placed in our path. 

We speak to him about our parishioners, our directeesand about the people whom he has given to us. In prayer, we learn to thank him for these people and to intercede for them. We thank him for the times when our work has been successful, and we must learn to thank him for allowing us to share in the apparent failures. In some mysterious way, it is especially in those agonizing moments when we pour our hearts out to the Lord concerning those who have rejected Christ, rejected the right path, rejected the sacraments, rejected the gospel, rejected their own good that we taste the best wine. It is also in prayer, that we experience Christ’s never tiring mercy and love for us. When we humbly place before him our sins, our faults, our failures, we hear him speak to us the merciful and loving words, “Hear another parable.” 

Staying close to others, living a spirit of poverty, and living in intimate friendship with the LordIf we do these things, we will become more and more like the master of the vineyard who never gives up trying to win over the rebellious heart. If we live these things, no matter how many times we experience the suffering of failure and rejection, we will never become discouraged. Instead, every time our heart is crushed, we will get right back up and say, “Hear another parable.”