The Lord keeps calling, and it’s never too late to answer

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25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Sept. 18, 2011
Isa 55:6-9; Ps 145; Phil 1:20-24, 27; Matt 20:1-16

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.”

I love the fact that it is at the 7 a.m. Mass that we are hearing this line in this parable from our Lord Jesus. For we too were up before dawn this morning; probably the sunrise occurred while you were driving here! And why is it that you went out at dawn to attend this 7 a.m. Mass? Probably because you have plans for your day; because you want to do certain activities at certain times and in a certain order. For many of you, you are especially thinking of just when you want to be on the golf course.

And so it is with the landowner in Christ’s story; and with the first laborers that he found. He had his grape harvest to get done in a timely fashion; they wanted to be the “early birds” who would be sure to get hired and so receive the daily wage on which they and their families relied for their livelihood. So they met each other in the marketplace at dawn and set to work for the day. And that could have been the end of the story.

But it was not. For, as we heard, the landowner needed more laborers, and so he went out again at the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour, in the Jewish reckoning of time—or at 9 o’clock, noon, and 3, in ours. And he even went out at the eleventh hour, 5 p.m., when the workday was almost done.

Now we have two ways of understanding this. It could be that each time he went out he only hired some of the laborers who were waiting in the marketplace and left others standing there. But that doesn’t seem likely to me, given his need for timely labor. So I would tilt toward the other explanation, which is that the laborers were slow to get up and get out there to begin their workday—even to the point that some didn’t get there until late afternoon! How much had they been drinking the night before, that it took them that long to sleep it off?

And yet the landowner did go out again and again throughout the day, even at the eleventh hour—and he called them too to come to his vineyard, and he gave them the reward that they needed.

And so it is with the Lord. He keeps calling; he keeps giving. And whether it is the Jewish people being called earlier, and the Gentiles later; or those who followed Christ early, versus those who responded to the Gospel later in the first century Church; or those who have been faithful from childhood, versus those who have responded later in life. Whether those who responded to the call to conversion, faith, and salvation; or those who responded to a call to some deeper service to the Lord.

The Lord keeps calling: all through the day; all through life; even up to the eleventh hour. It is never too late to respond to him. As long as this earthly life lasts, it is never too late.

And the history of the Church has borne this out. There is a wonderful book, Saints Behaving Badly, subtitled The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil Worshippers Who Became Saints. It collects together some of the colorful stories of how these men and women were earlier in their lives, before they responded to the call of the Lord and became the saints he always intended them to be. And so we see in the Table of Contents: St. Matthew, extortionist; St. Callixtus, embezzler; St. Pelagia, promiscuous actress; St. Moses the Ethiopian, cutthroat and gang leader; St. Augustine, heretic and playboy; St. Olga, mass murderer; St. Francis of Assisi, wastrel; St. Ignatius of Loyola, egotist; St. Philip Howard, cynic and negligent husband.

In all these cases, they heard the call of the Lord late, or later still. One of them, St. Augustine, famously wrote in his Confessions (X, 27):

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you… You were with me, but I was not with you… You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.

And it is not just to the initial act of faith and baptism that the Lord calls; it is also to deeper conversion, greater holiness of life, stronger love, more selfless service, and an ever-closer walk with him. How many content themselves with doing the minimum that the Church requires, while putting off responding to the Lord’s personal invitation to the excellence of sainthood?

Fr. Robert Barron, whose Catholicism video series we will be viewing and studying this year, recently observed (see text, video) that we often accept a “leniency and mediocrity” in our moral and spiritual lives that we would never tolerate “in any other area of life that we take seriously.” Fr. Barron likes to use golf as a source of analogies; and he did so on this point, saying:

Someone dedicated to having an excellent golf swing will, of course, accept correction of his most egregious faults, but he will expect his teacher to press forward, righting relatively minor errors, fine-tuning his swing until he reaches real proficiency. I imagine that he would want his teacher to hold up the example, not of a middle-level, weekend golfer, not even of a star on the junior tour, but of Rory McIlroy and Fred Couples and Jack Nicklaus. The one thing he would not want his coach to say is, “well, now that you’ve overcome the major problems, just swing any way you want.”

And, just so, the Lord keeps calling us to moral and spiritual excellence:

  • to get rid of that sin that has been entangling us for so long;
  • to enter into that prayer that has long attracted us;
  • to strengthen our knowledge of the faith, and give better witness to him;
  • to give ourselves more completely in loving service to our families and to others.

The power of the sacrament of confession is always there, and Fr. Sileo will be in the confessional beginning at 8 this morning. As we heard in our first reading, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.” The Lord is always close to you, and to those you know, calling, as long as this life shall last. Even up to the eleventh hour.

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