The Word Embodied
“I have come to rate all as loss.”
Her face is still clear in my mind, even though I haven’t seen her for fifteen years and she quite possibly might be gone from our earth by now.
She seemed to have lines that at one time had often smiled, but when I encountered her after Mass one day, her face was all scrunched up like an over salted pretzel. “You know what I hate about the Gospels,” she said, not in a question, but with the authority of more than eighty years. I didn’t know quite how to respond, other than to say, “What?”
“The eleventh hour. Those people who come in at the eleventh hour and get paid the same as those who have been working all day. It’s like sinners who loaf all their lives and then ask God’s forgiveness at the end and get into heaven.”
There was no doubt she was angry about the unfairness of the situation. But what bothered her most was the fact that Jesus’ parable of the laborers was truly dangerous. If we dared believe it, we would all stop trying and would give up our efforts at being good. It seemed to be saying that our good works were worth nothing in the end.
Well, she had a point. But even at age eighty or eighty-five she had a lot to learn. She was sincere and earnest, no doubt a hard-working person; but I’ve often thought over the years that if she has died and gone to her reward, she has found a Lord far more wondrous than our meager deals and imaginings. What a stupendous surprise it must have been to encounter Christ the judge. Everything else, our sins or our victories, must pale in comparison.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, writes of the overwhelming importance of knowing the Lord Jesus. Nothing else seems to matter. “For his sake, I have forfeited everything; I have accounted all else rubbish so that Christ may be my wealth and I may be in him, not having any justice on my own based on observance of the law.” This must have been quite an admission from such an activist and hard worker as Paul. He was willing to count all of his efforts and labors as trash. From this point on, his justification would be through faith in Jesus, not in works.
It would seem, then, if Paul really believed this, he would become the greatest of quietists. Why not fritter away the rest of his life? But the exact opposite happens. Instead of giving up on his efforts, Paul works all the harder.
It is not that I have reached my goal yet, or have already finished my course; but I am racing to grasp the prize if possible, since I have been grasped by Christ. I do not think of myself as having reached the finish line. I give no thought to what lies behind but push on to what is ahead. My entire attention is on the finish line as I run toward the prize to which God calls me—life on high in Christ Jesus.
Unlike Paul, most of us expend our energy for lesser things. We try so hard, not only to win the game of life, but to merit eternal life itself. We think our efforts count so much; we hack away at our salvation. And we may well resent it when others find forgiveness. Perhaps we rise in harsh judgment against those who cannot or will not meet our standards. Perhaps we even condemn ourselves in our failures, embracing the cruel verdict.
What do we do when we nab the adulterers of the world or the adulterer in our hearts? Do we want to stone them? What penalty will we exact of the sinner around and within us? Jesus says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” While we rush to judgment and condemnation, Jesus does not. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
This may be a troubling thought. The forgiveness seems too fast; our efforts at virtue seem not to count. Indeed, this is a new way, a new path through the sea of life. Isaiah foretold it: “See I am doing something new. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” The psalmist sang, “The Lord has done great things for us, we are filled with joy.”
In Jesus there really is something new that unites us all: the young woman one day long ago caught in sin, the old lady after Mass resenting the laggards, and even the mighty achievers like St. Teresa of Avila. She insisted that her greatest consolation was in the thought that, upon her death, she would meet Christ in judgment and have no virtue or gain of her own to offer in self-defense. She would simply throw herself upon his abundant mercy.
Some of us will just stand there, like the adulterer, in grateful awe and silence. Others, like the dear old lady I met years ago, might find their faded laugh lines restored to haggard faces.
And all of us will celebrate those who turned to him in the morning of life just as much as we cheer on stragglers who had nothing else to offer but their hope, even at the eleventh hour.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University