It’s Not Too Late to Get to Work

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” — G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World.

Being a Christian takes work. That statement may come as a surprise to many. There is an aversion among many Christians, especially those formed in the Protestant tradition, to the word “work” when it comes to our faith. The founding principle of the Protestant Reformation, which began 500 years ago next month, is Sola Fide or “faith alone,” as opposed to the Catholic teaching that both faith and good works are necessary for our salvation. Martin Luther took St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 3:28 that we are justified by faith and not works of the law to mean that human work has no part to play in our salvation. He was less fond of St. James’ teaching in James 2:24 that we are justified by works and not by faith alone.

In the Catholic Church, these two passages find synthesis. But, like any heresy, Sola Fide contains an element of truth. This is why it is attractive to so many. It is absolutely true that we are incapable of saving ourselves. It is impossible for the finite to reach the infinite, for the temporal to enter into eternity. Simply put, we cannot get to heaven on our own steam. It takes an infinite power such as God to reach into our finite time and space and draw us up to be with Him in heaven. Catholics and Protestants alike agree that we are saved by grace (from the Latin word gratia, meaning “gift”). Our salvation is wholly and entirely a gift from God.

But this does not mean that we have no part to play. As St. Augustine points out, God made us without our help, but He will not save us without our help. This is why St. Paul speaks of “working out” his salvation (Phil 2:12). Paul doesn’t doubt the necessity of God’s grace; he is merely aware of the need to cooperate with that grace. It’s one thing to receive a gift; it is another thing to use it. Someone can give you an amazing, life-changing book, but it will do you no good if you never read it.

In Memory and Identity, his last published work before his death, Pope St. John Paul II spoke about the work of Christian discipleship in these terms: “In the mystery of Redemption, Christ’s victory over evil is given to us… as a task. We accept that task as we set out upon the way of the interior life, working consciously on ourselves — with Christ as our Teacher.” We are called to work on ourselves! But this must always be done under the guidance of Jesus Christ.

Jesus speaks clearly about this. He says, “If you love me, keep my commands” (Jn 14:15). He speaks of our need to follow Him, to carry our cross, and to do the will of the Father. These are all action words. Jesus gives fair notice: Christian discipleship is hard work. This is because God is not content with giving us poor sinners the undeserved reward of heaven. God wants to transform us into holy saints worthy of heaven! Because God always respects our free will (remember, God is a lover, not a rapist), He needs us to cooperate with His work of redemption every step of the way. That takes effort and discipline.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus describes Christians as workers in the parable from this Sunday’s gospel. Christian disciples are those who have accepted the call to work in the master’s vineyard. Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as being like a landowner who hires workers to work in his vineyard. He hires them at dawn and agrees to pay them a day’s wage. He likewise hires a group of laborers at 9am, at noon, at 3pm, and at 5pm. When it came time to pay the laborers for their work, all groups were paid the same — a full day’s wage — even though the last group to be hired only worked for about an hour.

Understandably the early hires are troubled by the fact that the late hires were paid the same as them. Isn’t this unfair? In our way of thinking, those who came to the vineyard late in the day should receive much less than those who worked all day long. Similarly, the thought of someone getting into heaven after living a life steeped in sin, because they had a last minute conversion, might seem unfair to us — or even impossible. But, as our first reading reminds us, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways (Is 55:8).

The landowner (God) explains to them, “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? … What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?  Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” God is just, and so those who labor in his vineyard all day long receive a full day’s pay. But God is merciful, and so rewards those who began their work late in the day with the same pay. When it comes to God’s saving grace, we all receive much more than we deserve.

God’s abundant mercy means that it is never too late to begin the work of the Christian life — no matter how immersed in sin we have become, no matter how long we have been away from the practice of the faith. If we refuse to repent and to begin the work of cooperating with God’s will because we think it is “too late for us” then one day it truly will be. But as long as there is breath within us, it is never too late to accept the Master’s call to labor in the vineyard of the kingdom. It is never too late to begin the work of cooperating with God’s work of redemption.

The vineyard of the kingdom lies in the human heart. If we work to sow God’s seed in that vineyard, it will bear fruit for our own salvation.