25th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached September 21, 2017; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable in which the landowner speaks to men he finds in the marketplace at the last hour of the day. He asks them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They reply, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
The reply of the men in the marketplace leaps off the pages written a couple thousand years ago and resonates with a problem that has afflicted the world in a unique way since the advent of the industrial revolution: unemployment.
For all that I do not plan today to speak about ‘unemployment’ or at least not what we usually think of as unemployment, but I do want to start with the pain behind the answer, Because no one has hired us. These are people who have been looking for work all day; these are people who wanted to work, but no one hired them. On top of that they find themselves being accused of idleness. The pain behind those words is something with which we are very familiar; if we have not experienced it ourselves in our lives, we almost certainly know someone who has.
The pain expressed in those words comes from more than not being able to find a reliable source of income; very often there is the pain involved in a loss of self-esteem, a sense of being useless and no good, a loss of purpose in life.
A loss of sense of purpose in life: That is where our modern experience of unemployment really does connect with today’s Gospel. We were not created to be idle, but we were created for a purpose and we will never attain true and lasting happiness except by fulfilling the purpose for which we were created. Hell, we could say, is a state of perpetual, unending frustration, the unavoidable realization that one has failed to achieve his purpose and will now never be able to achieve that purpose; Hell is a paradoxical condition that can be compared to never-ending, enforced, idleness and unemployment as well as to slave labor that produces nothing.
The parable of the landowner going out to hire workers for his vineyard speaks of God having a ‘job’ for us to do, ‘employment’, a task, a job that involves our whole life, receives as its salary an eternal reward, and gives purpose and meaning to our existence.
In this light, I would dare say that in our world today there are countless souls who are ‘unemployed’ in the Kingdom of God. There are many who don’t seem to really want to work, like those who are standing around during the middle of the day, but there are also a great many like the workers of the last hour whom no one has hired, no one has shown them how to work for God’s kingdom, no one has taught them the meaning and purpose of life.
It is not as though the lesson is being taught and people just are not getting it, we are living in a time when the lesson is not being taught at all, or if it is being taught is drowned out amid a cacophony of voices.
Let me summarize the message that has been communicated to our youth for the last 40 years at least through a variety of cultural means, but especially through a public education that has been completely secularized. The message is fragmented and it is often not so much what is handed on, as what is not handed on, that is the problem; without an overarching view that comes from faith, each isolated fragment becomes destructive and dangerous, like shards of broken glass, shards of what was once a precious crystal goblet.
First: Our youth are taught that the purpose of life is to get a job and make a living. That is what schools about; that is what education is about. If you can get a good job, a well paying job, all the better. If you can get the job you want, doing what you want, all the better.
In the second place, they are taught that “It is all about you and what you want to do.” You are free to do what you want (or should be free) and you are equal to everyone else and have the same right to do want you want as anyone else. Your opinion is just as good as anyone else’s, even if you are only a teenager.
In the third place, they learn that everything is to be determined by majority vote; except when the vote goes against you.
In the fourth place, they learn that modern science is the absolute truth that would set us free from superstition and solve all our problems, whereas religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular exist only to keep mankind in the chains and darkness of ignorance, slaves to the priests.
In the fifth place, they learn that sex is for consenting adults (and maybe teenagers if they were ready) but the really important thing is to avoid pregnancy or disease. They do not really learn the truth about marriage and authentic love, unless it comes from their family.
Today this same message about sex comes in the midst of the whirl wind of LGBT rights that produce utter confusion about one of the most basic aspects of human reality, the difference between men and women, while at the same the power to resist the message is sapped by the ubiquitous cesspool of pornography to which children are exposed at ever younger ages.
In the sixth place they learn that the world is a scary place filled with crime, poverty, war, and violence. When I was young we had the specter of nuclear war; now perhaps it is more the apocalyptic fear of global warming that leaves the youth wondering if there will be a world left for them when they grow old.
Finally, the person is left with a feeling that they are nothing more than a cog in the great machine of production; laborers not in a life-giving vineyard, but in a factory that has no goal beyond itself.
These lessons are not actually cohesive; they contain many internal contradictions. The dictatorship of ‘science’ goes against the idolatry of democracy – the majority are not nor will they ever be ‘scientists’; nor does science really support the sexual revolution. The freedom of the sexual revolution goes hand-in-hand with the ‘do whatever you want’ mentality, but runs into conflict with the idea that a good ‘career’ is the source of meaning and fulfillment in life. The goal of career is often seen from two conflicting standpoints: pursuit of personal fulfillment and the common good of the nation – i.e. we need scientists, engineers, nurses, computer programmers, etc. to have a strong nation.
For all its internal contradictions, that so often pass by unnoticed, this hodge-podge is the powerful cultural message that has been communicated to youth over past decades through public education and various media and cultural channels. Today the message has become much more powerful because the power and influence of alternative messages, especially those coming from faith and family, have been weakened over the course time.
Today children are growing up deprived of the lessons of created nature, including human nature, of history, of tradition, and of faith. They grow up in an artificial man-made world where yesterday does not exist and where AI is seen as the wave of the near future. The result is that they grow up without any sense of meaning and purpose to life; they grow up idle and unemployed because no one has hired them; they grow up prey to ideologies that will gladly channel their energies to some cause, often false and destructive. Is it any wonder also that teen suicide has become an epidemic?
These very same forces that are producing such widespread spiritual ‘unemployment’ are also the underlying reason why so many Catholic youth end up leaving the faith and becoming ‘unemployed’. Actually, if the truth be told, it is the also the reason why we ourselves, even if we attend Mass, even if we believe, may have become either ‘unemployed’ or idle. Because we have been shaped by the same influences, and are very little aware of it, we have come to think of our faith as an appendage to the rest of our life, something that provides security and consolation, but not what is really most important, not what gives meaning and purpose to the whole of existence, not the supreme light that enables us to evaluate and judge everything else.
Our task, as Catholics, is to work in the Lord’s vineyard and part of that work means finding those who are ‘unemployed’ and ‘hiring’ them – that includes our own children. We will be unable to do this if we are unwilling to really learn the lessons, not only of our faith, but also of our history and our tradition, and those also of created nature. History, tradition, and created nature are the rich soil faith needs to grow and flourish.
The reward for our work seems very simple and unimpressive: the daily wage, one denarius. The denarius was a coin stamped with the image of the king. The spiritual denarius, so to speak, is stamped with the image of Christ, the King. To receive the denarius is to receive our own birthright as it were, both as created in the image of God and as reborn in Christ through baptism; to receive the denarius is to receive Christ himself, born of the Virgin Mary; we receive this denarius already in the Holy Eucharist; in heaven, when we are united to God forever, we will receive the denarius such that it will never be taken away.