Mass readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 55.6-9 Psalm 145 Philippians 1.20-24, 27 Matthew 20.1-16
Thinking about how the upcoming synod intersects with our gospel passage today, I came to reflect on its basic message that we are called by God to do his work, and in doing it we participate in his divinity and secure an eternal reward. The challenge today is in hearing God amidst the noise of a crowded marketplace, and to recognize him when he beckons us to come to his vineyard and get to work. The Synod of Bishops soon to convene is directly concerned with this problem. How does the Church as a whole ensure that it is hearing the Lord in a very noisy time?
For us as individuals, there hopefully comes a point in our lives when we realize there is more to life than the accumulation of wealth, the pursuit of pleasure, or even mere subsistence. In the lack of satisfaction in these, the hope is that people begin to discern higher purpose, and heed the call of God.
That call doesn’t necessarily involve one’s career directly, what it is you do for a living. Rather, the godly work is done wherever you find yourself, working on an assembly line, as an online consultant, in a grocery store; and informing your work be that of a travel agent or an athletic trainer, or a dental hygienist.
A takeaway from today’s gospel with respect to vocation that has seeped into our culture is that when we go out into the spiritual marketplace seeking employment, God will call on us. This is an idea that permeates our western civilization. I’ve mentioned the historians Tom Holland and Michael Burleigh before, and their shared thesis that despite the claim we are a secular, post-Christian society, we are still profoundly Christian in our self-understanding; and so, Christian with respect to the idea that one is “called” to live and work with some kind of overarching intention; that we give ourselves to our work, our family life, but also political causes, social projects, even revolutions because of this underlying conviction that we have a higher purpose.
We encounter this thinking with people who haven’t ever darkened the door of a church who talk about their happiness in their work because they “know” this is what they were supposed to be doing with their lives, and they speak of how they feel they’ve arrived where they need to be – that speaks of a plan, a design, a divine vocational director whose advice we finally heed and so, experience this sense of fulfilment when we are happy in our work. Conversely, we also hear people speaking of their dissatisfaction with their lives, and how they are restless to find the right thing for themselves – and this reminds us of St. Augustine who wrote of the restlessness of the human heart that does not cease until one rests in God.
Pre-Christian societies of the past, and non-Christian societies today only share in the Judeo-Christian concept of vocation insofar as they’ve been influenced by Jewish and Christian communities. Go back two thousand years to ancient Greece or Rome or Persia or China, and you’d be laughed at if you asserted that God or the gods had called you to be a husband, a father and a plumber who serves the Lord. Those societies simply did not frame their understanding of human life in those terms. Heroes blessed by the gods were exceptions that proved the rule. For the vast majority, their role was to serve, not God, but their betters, the king, the high priest, who would have the responsibility of directing their societies to conform to the will of the gods – that is, people were to do as they were told, and not be listening out for a divine summons – we were simply not important enough to have that kind of attention from God.
Today most people in the West, consciously or not, conform to a revolutionary idea of personal vocation.
The challenge today is that with people having this expectation, and either consciously or unconsciously, discerning where they belong and what they should be doing with their lives, there is an urgency to hear and answer a call; and unfortunately, sometimes that is the first call heard from whomever, and a failure to look at just who is offering you that job, and see what work is being offered. You might not be headed to the Lord’s vineyard.
This can lead to people pursuing goals with great passion that are not of God, all the while convinced of their righteousness because of the dedication they have shown, the efforts they have made, the investment of time and energy, sometimes over years, into realizing some result from their work. Heaven knows, I have enlisted in the efforts of a political causes through my years in Ottawa as a low-level political functionary that I now regret.
Today our society is dividing along a number of issues, and across these divides hurling insults and accusations without pause to listen, or do any introspection with respect to what we are doing by way of what we advocate and support, by the way we live our lives, pursue our work, raise and educate our children, let alone what we publicly advocate in the sphere of politics.
But how are we to know if that voice we heard, that intuition we had, that sense that “this is what I should do” has come from God?
Christians have recourse to scripture, but its interpretation is affected by the emotional and intellectual formation we have had. The tradition of Christian discernment has long recognized that we are not creatures of pure reason. Indeed, the theology of the fall teaches us that we have corrupted reason. We are very good at rationalizing bad decisions.
The tradition recognizes our emotional lives as integral to who we are; but also cautions us with respect to what the Church prefers to speak of, not as emotion, but rather as our passions and our affections which are a jumble.
There is a distinction that St. Thomas Aquinas delves into. We might think passion a good thing, and a sign for us because strong emotion must come from the rightness of what we give our life to, Aquinas draws on the historic definition that calls those feeling-responses we share with animals, (sensing danger, or the availability of food, or sexual opportunity, and so on) these are passions (passiones). They are marked by visceral reaction and are associated with moral temptation that include the instinct to be part of something and that leads us to being swept up into whatever is going on.
Affections (affectiones), by contrast, are generated not from our senses, our appetites, our primitive desires, but from the will and the intellect. This is a capacity that is unique to human beings, we don’t share this with animals, but with higher beings such as angels and God.
We hear this distinction in the words of Isaiah today, “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
The highest love, agape, the selfless love seen in Christ’s sacrifice, is an affection that derives from the will; and we strive to will this love for others in ourselves, in humility and in prayer trying to understand that the love that wills the good does not always look like love to the world.
Jesus rebuked Peter at Caesarea Phillipi for thinking in human terms and responding from out of the lesser love of friendship and in passion when Jesus said he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die at the hands of his enemies.
Indeed, one of the great causes of our times is the elimination of suffering; and those said to suffer, for whatever reason, become the focus of causes and the advocacy of so much that is contrary to a true and consistent morality. What is common to these movements that seek to overturn Judeo-Christian morality lies in the baseless assertion that in overturning it they will eliminate the suffering of certain individuals without any cost to society, but instead lead to its enrichment; and that, indeed, this revolution will end the suffering. Such assertions must offer more than emotional conviction as proof of their validity.
This week we are called to pray for the Synod of Bishops convening in Rome; and we pray for discernment. Its convenor, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, has said it’s not a synod about any of the hot-button issues of our day. He said “It’s a synod on synodality.” It’s about how the Church discerns as a whole.
So, I pray this will be an effort to ground all the faithful in good and proper discernment, to develop a capacity to listen in the noisy public square with patience and hear past the shouting the Lord’s voice. If we can succeed, even modestly, we can show the communities of the world how to listen for truth, and from good discernment then offer fruitful labor to the glory of God and for the salvation of all.