Death…Judgment…Heaven…Hell. We do not really talk much about these things at the breakfast table! They do not often come up in conversation when we are out having a cup of coffee with friends. You will not find these words in many email headings! And yet these are the Four Last Things that the Church, for centuries, has always encouraged Her faithful to consider and meditate on. Death, judgment, heaven and hell. In light of God’s mercy and compassion, those realities help us to put things in perspective and guide us on the way to eternal life with God.
Although not common, there would be nothing wrong with talking about them (in the proper context). And by all means there is nothing wrong with preaching about them. Jesus Christ, many times, preached about the Four Last Things.
I remember hearing once, in fact, that Christ preached more about hell than He did about heaven. I was not all that convinced then; I am still not. But I did “Google” it the other day, just to get the “definitive” word! I discovered that there are basically two camps: those who count up the number of times Christ uses the words “heaven” and “hell”, with the former taking precedence. Then there are those who say you have to look at the context; hell featured more prominently in Jesus’ preaching, they say.
Whichever camp we side with, however, the one obvious fact is that Christ preached about both heaven and hell, often. And He almost always spoke about them together. Why is that?
Throughout this past week at the seminary here we have been blessed with the guidance and teaching presence of Fr. James Wallace, C.Ss.R., a nationally known and respected Professor of Homiletics at Washington Theological Union. He has been here to give our seminarians a workshop on preaching, and the gospel text we have been focusing on is the one we listen to this weekend: the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.
One of the shining themes of that parable—evidenced in all the homilies our seminarians have delivered throughout these past few days—is the absolute and overwhelming generosity of God. It is a parable about heaven, the goal and destiny that God has in mind for each of us from the beginning.
Christ describes God as a landowner who is constantly on the move. It is as if every moment of every hour he is out inviting and welcoming workers into His vineyard. It is the offer of grace and the mercy of God, withheld from no one. Yet along with that tremendous offer of generosity and love comes a terrible risk: the possibility that such an offer could be rejected.
One of the workers in the parable turns on the landowner and begins to grumble about the workings of the vineyard:
These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.
The reply from the landowner is a sobering one, even somewhat haunting:
“My friend,” he says to him, “I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go…”
In other words, if you do not like the conditions of the vineyard, then you are under no obligation to remain. It is haunting because the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is not about workers, and it is not about a vineyard. It is about the invitation to eternal life with God, and this person is in danger of walking away from that! That is about as close to a definition of hell as you can find.
C.S. Lewis, in his fictional novel The Great Divorce, says that, in the end, there are only two kinds of people. There are those who say to God, “Thy will be done.”
It may be a sin that we would really like to hold onto, but we realize it has the power to keep us from God, and so we let it go. Thy will be done. Or perhaps there is someone who has hurt us so badly that we do not wish to ever forgive them…but God is relentlessly moving us in that direction. Reluctantly, perhaps, we force those words from our lips: Thy will be done. Or maybe we are carrying a cross that is so heavy, a trial that is nearly unbearable, but we trust in the mercy of God to see us through. Thy will be done. That is the first kind of person described by C.S. Lewis.
The second, however, is the one to whom God must say, in the end, and with great sorrow: Thy will be done. If you do not wish to be a part of this Kingdom, thy will be done. If you are not willing to accept my offer of generosity and merciful love on my terms, but instead insist on your own terms, thy will be done. “Take what is yours and go.” What an awful and tragic prospect.
Yet there are two words in the parable that militate against that possibility, two words spoken to each one of us, as well. Words that flood the world with hope: My friend!
“My friend,” the landowner says to that perplexed and grumbling worker. My friend. There is absolutely no evidence to support the notion that this acknowledgment of friendship is anything but authentic. There is no bitterness or sarcasm here; only the absolute and overwhelming generosity of God. And that may be the closest thing to heaven that we will ever experience here on earth.
St. Thomas Aquinas refers to heaven and the eternal relationship God offers to us as Amicitia Dei, friendship with God. How remarkable! We are not merely workers in the vineyard. We are friends, called to a life of intimacy with the living God! I would like to suggest there are at least three ways we are called to nurture that friendship and to remain closely united to Christ.
The first and foundational way is prayer: daily conversation with God. We take the time each day to be alone and still before God. We talk to Him, and try very hard to listen. A great example of this kind of conversation that keeps friendship alive and thriving is found in Christian marriage. A husband and wife are called to develop and nurture their friendship through daily conversation and continual communication. Yet never is that conversation more intimate and powerful than when they speak to each other in the silence and communicate with the language of their bodies in the union that is the God-given sign of their love. That conversation has the power to generate new life in the world we live in.
It is also the level of intimacy that God calls each of us to in our conversation with Him in prayer. Does that sound outrageous to you? We would never even imagine a relationship with God that intimate, if God Himself had not revealed it to us in the Scriptures. Through the prophets of the Old Testament, God reveals his love to the People of Israel as the love of a husband. He espouses Himself to Israel; she is His chosen bride.
In the New Testament Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom of His Bride, the Church. It is for Her that He is willing to suffer and die, giving His very life that She may be forever united to Him. At the Last Supper He speaks perhaps the most profound and life-giving words in all of Sacred Scripture: This is my body, which will be given up for you. Take and eat it. This is the cup of my blood…shed for you. Take, and drink from it.
That conversation of Christ with His Bride the Church, then and at every celebration of the Eucharist, has the power to bring about the one-flesh union between Bridegroom and Bride. That intimacy is continued through our prayer leading to and from the Eucharist each day. Amicitia Dei, friendship with God, is nurtured and sustained by prayer.
Secondly, we are able to remain close to God when we read about and from the people who were closest to Him: the Saints. Spiritual reading draws us up into the same love that they had for God, and it has the power to enkindle the flame of devotion in us.
The story of Edith Stein—who would later become St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—provides a compelling testimony. Edith was a brilliant, young Jewish philosopher and ardent searcher of truth. Yet in all her learning she still sensed that there was something else, something more which she could not fully grasp.
By the grace of God she was led to the teachings of the Catholic faith through the example and witness of several faithful souls near where she lived. They gave her a book on The Life of St. Teresa of Avila and she read the whole thing in a single night (it is by no means light reading!). In the wee hours of the morning she read the final page, closed that book and said to herself, “This is the truth.” She converted to the Catholic faith, was baptized and eventually entered a Carmelite community in Cologne, Germany, a few hours away from where we gather for this Mass. She would later die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, witnessing to her faith and love for Christ to the end.
Spiritual reading has the power to change our lives and draw us into the very heart of God. If we want to get wet, we have to stand where the water is. If we want to get warm, then we have to stand in the fire! Spiritual reading and the lives of the saints can set our lives on fire and help us to grow in our friendship with God.
Finally, not only prayer leading to and from the Eucharist, and spiritual reading, but also imitation of Christ is what we need to nurture that intimate friendship with Him. We look at the generosity of God in this parable and we desire to love like that. We see how willing God is, at every moment of every day, to reach out in love and we are moved to want to do the same. We look to Christ, who on the cross pours out His body and blood, His very life for our salvation, and we also seek to make that total gift of self.
May this coming week find us growing ever more deeply in our relationship of intimacy and friendship with God. Amicitia Dei, it is the closest thing to heaven that we will find here on this earth, and it is the sine qua non for every worker in the vineyard of the Lord.