I’ve been reminded – helpfully – that I neglected to post this homily from a couple of weeks ago
You know that Scripture can be interpreted in various ways. But one interpretation is not as good as another. Some interpretations are just wrong, because they don’t take into account language or history or context. This story – the Parable of the Vineyard – has long been interpreted – by Christians – to mean that Christians replaced the Jews as the definitive People of God and the People of the Covenant. This is called Replacement Theology. It’s nonsense – nefarious, antisemitic nonsense, used to justify brutality and genocide. The earliest followers of Christ were not Christians but Jews, as was Jesus Himself. This parable is a story about how one set of Jewish leaders was replaced with another set of Jewish leaders. Nothing has been taken from the Jewish People themselves, because God keeps promises.
The chief priests and the elders were wealthy, powerful, and privileged. As such they that they themselves were the aggrieved owners of the vineyard. Which is why they were so quick to suggest that the “wretched tenants” should be put to death for failing to deliver a return on the owner’s investment. What they failed to understand – until Jesus made it clear at the end of the story – was that they were in fact the tenants. The vineyard didn’t belong to them.
Of course wealth still buys power and influence. There are those who say that America has become an oligarchy – which, as every schoolchild knows, is rule by a small group of people. Thus, an oligarchy of the wealthy. Every oligarchy rests on a myth. For example, the myth of the divine right of kings supported the absolute monarchies of Renaissance Europe. The American oligarchy rests on the myth that free-market winner-take-all capitalism can solve our problems, combined with the mythical belief that wealth is an indicator of merit and not a function of privilege. In America, wealth buys goods and services, to be sure, but it also buys opportunity, and safety, and peace of mind. Many of us were taught as children that wealth was tied to character, backbone, and hard work. That was always a lie – now, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, it’s a lie that we’re beginning to see through. Americans of modest means work harder than any people I know, holding down two and three low-paying jobs – jobs that offer neither benefits or health care – all the while trying to maintain households and care for children. For them the lockdown has not meant a chance to clean out the garage, learn calligraphy or redo the landscaping. Far from it: The kids are at home, trying to learn remotely using outdated devices and shaky access to the internet; they need help with their lessons; there’s no work; the rent is overdue; the car won’t start, the food pantries are overwhelmed, and nobody has health insurance.
There is a better way. It’s grounded in Catholic Social Teaching. It’s called the common good. The common good is the good of all. Not the good of the wealthy or the few; not the good of the majority; not even the greatest good for the greatest number, but the good of all, together. That all may thrive. That all may reach their potential. As in what Dr. King and others referred to as the Beloved Community, which is not the Kingdom of God on earth but an achievable earthly reality.
Finding the common good and building the Beloved Community require something that Pope Francis has brought up over and over again and something that is foreign to our combative society: listening. It’s neither ironic nor accidental that the Black Lives Matter movement – again, the greatest social movement in American history – is about precisely that: listening, for perhaps the first time our nation’s history, to the lived experiences of Black Americans. In their fullness: the sufferings, the struggles, the joys, the determination and the resilience. Listening: By which I do not mean sitting there formulating your opposing argument – your rebuttal – while someone else is talking. We have learned false lessons from the behavior of those we have falsely and foolishly invested with power and authority – including the lesson that every conversation is to be framed as a skirmish and that in every skirmish there will be a winner and a loser and you’d better hope you’re the winner because if you’re not the winner you’re the capital L loser. Because baby, it’s about winning.
Listening is a different thing entirely. It’s a sacred thing. It takes work. To listen is to honor the humanity and the worth of the person you’re with. To listen is to allow each person to be the interpreter of their own experience – which is, after all, a fundamental human desire: To be taken seriously. To matter. As in Black Lives Matter.
Are you beginning to see how all of this fits together? The issues you hear about from this pulpit – climate change, systemic racism, the sanctity of life, wealth and poverty, the dignity of the human person – are not separate issues. They are related and bound together. By the grace of God and because God loves us, the papacy of our dear Francis has offered what the syndicated columnist and professor of government E. J. Dionne calls an “enormous opening.” The disappointment – did I say disappointment? I meant heartbreak – in this is that American Catholicism has largely forfeited the opportunity to bear public witness to what Francis calls the “joy of the Gospel.” Instead, the loudest Catholic voices speak incessantly of opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage – and of little else. Tragically, these are the voices that have come to define Catholicism for increasing numbers of Americans and especially for younger Americans. And now many of these same voices suggest that Catholics are morally obliged to vote for – in Mr. Dionne’s words – “the most corrupt, morally flawed, selfish, and bigoted” administration in our nation’s history. Is it any wonder then that 13 percent of all Americans describe themselves as former Catholics? That our efforts to evangelize so often fall short?
We Catholics are called to the cry of the unborn, as our archbishop has asked us to do with regard to Proposition 115, presently on the ballot, and which would put restrictions on so-called late-term abortions – abortions after 22 weeks. Evidence shows that a fetus in the third trimester – 28 weeks and after – can feel pain. By week 30 a fetus has an intact, functioning system of five senses. Now I’m aware that abortion is a polarizing topic, and that it’s as complex and fraught as any topic ever was. Nonetheless, there must be a better way. Not easier, perhaps, or more convenient, but better: Listening to and learning from the lived experiences of women in impossible situations and then formulating a way forward that honors women as spirit-filled moral agents even as it insists on a consistent ethic of life. Listening.
And we can listen to the Earth. Pushed beyond the limits of endurance, the earth and her creatures cry out in anguish and suffering. As Pope Francis has said, the Earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” The solution begins with listening; listening and taking seriously.
It bears mentioning that listening is risky, even as it opens us to new and healthier relationships. Good Lord, what if I were to listen and learn something? What if – Heaven forbid – I listened and then went on to adjust my way of seeing things?
Fear discourages listening. Sadly, fear is in the air. It is toxic – more toxic still than smoke and ash from the wildfires a few miles to the west. Those who should be engendering hope traffic instead in fear-mongering. We’re encouraged – if such a word can be used in this context – not just to approach the world with fear but to husband and hold onto our fears, to nurse them and watch them grow. And to look for things to be afraid of, as with those who are telling us that we should be afraid to vote in November.
Fear paralyzes. Fear is the stuff of death. No surprise then that the Enemy of humankind uses fear as a weapon. Capitalizing on our fears, the Enemy invites us to respond impulsively and with recklessness – to continue the cycle of violence, dominion and intimidation that has driven so many to the point of despair and that threatens our soul as a nation.
Listening exposes the origins and nature of fear. Listening engenders connection and builds community, and connection and community are the stuff of holiness. And inasmuch as the Black Lives Matter movement is about listening to and honoring the lived experience of Black Americans as human beings made in the image and likeness of God, we must not allow the movement to be compromised or discredited. Neither should we allow it to be dismissed as the whim of the moment. It is an essential piece of our collective salvation. We must carry it forward and make it a lived reality.
Which will require change. Make no mistake. On any number of fronts, we cannot continue as we have been. We are in crisis, which means either we change or we are lost. But even now, as our very existence hangs in the balance, those who traffic in fear tell us that we must hold on to what we have, that we cannot share. Which is the wrong way to frame it. Listening to one another and seeking the good of all mean fostering connection and building community. Which is not loss, but gain. Life is better, healthier, happier in community.
You are beloved. You must not forget who you are and where you come from. You must not lose hope. The forces of darkness want you to believe that hope is a fiction and a fantasy. Nonsense. This is God’s world. Hope is woven into the very fabric of the universe. Abandon fear. Live in hope. And please, listen again to the word of the God who loves you beyond measure:
Brothers and sisters:
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
Keep on doing what you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me.
Then the God of peace will be with you.