Isa 55:6-9; Mt 20:1-16
I was called to Dorchester hospital last week to give the Last Rites to someone, and it’s always a great honour for a priest to do that: to prepare someone to go to meet the Lord. To hear someone’s confession and absolve him of his sins; to anoint him to be healed of the ultimate wound, namely death itself, healed in that: grace can overcome death so that death is not a disaster but is instead the entry into eternal life.
Sometimes, I’m called to someone who has lived a long life in close union with the Lord –and that’s a pleasure to behold.
But other times, I’m called to someone who has wandered, wandered long and far from the path of God. Someone who, at the last minute, reaches out and calls for the priest, and, actually that’s something that can be an even greater pleasure for a priest. It can be a living example of the truth Christ taught that, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick... I came not to call the righteous but sinners, to repentance” (Mt 12:13).
Now, this raises a curious question of justice, the one we heard Jesus addressing in today’s parable (Mt 20:1-16). The parable had those who worked only the last hour of the day rewarded just as those who had worked the whole day, ‘under the heat of the sun’.
And it would be possible for me to raise a similar complaint against those who seek a last-minute return to the Lord. I could say that I have made no dramatic wanderings into sin in MY life; I have ALWAYS been a Mass-going Catholic. Why should someone who last showed his face at Mass 50 years ago get eternal salvation too?
While this complaint gets phrased in different ways, it’s a common one, and it deserves addressing.
Well, before I or any of you feel self-righteous about some sinner making a last minute dash for salvation, we need to recall what is true of EACH of us:
I too have sinned. I too stand in need of God’s forgiveness. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn 8:7).
Forgiveness is God’s gift and receivers of gifts cannot complain about who they are given to or that someone else gets a bigger gift. As Jesus said of his giving forgiveness: “Why be envious because I am generous?”(Mt 20:16)
We also need to remember that repentance IS possible and CAN be genuine –this is what Christians are expected to believe!
Sometimes people are suspicious of other people’s sincerity in repenting because they think that change isn’t really possible –but Jesus came because it IS possible -He came that by His death and saving grace it might BECOME possible.
People sometimes talk as if they were afraid that someone might be about to ‘cheat’ God by getting to Heaven with a death-bed conversion. And in this, we need to remember that God is no fool. If we fear that someone might be getting into Heaven by a fake death-bed confession, well, God knows the difference between a phony repentance and a genuine one. A true repentance wishes to have never sinned, says that if he could go back he would not do what he did. You can fool the priest, and the priest typically gives people the benefit of the doubt –but you cannot fool God.
But there is a final point to address: People sometimes complain about a death-bed conversion as if they resented the fact that they themselves had been virtuous, as if they had ‘missed out’ by being good. They’ve missed out on all the fun of sinning and yet they think they’ll be no better off that the ones who did the fun sinning –and this seems to be behind the notion that “it’s not fair”.
But people who make genuine death-bed conversions often give the clearest counter-witness to this, they often have a KEEN sense that THEIRS is the wasted life.
Sin has its attractions, and at a puerile level it can seem more fun, but sin does not satisfy. It is an empty life.
And, if we resent that we’ve been living a virtuous life while others have been sinning, then we probably haven’t really been living a virtuous life –we’ve got something seriously wrong in the motivation and manner we’ve been living it. Even though the good life has its difficulties, its moments when it feels like we are ‘labouring under the heat of day’, nonetheless, the good life is a GOOD life, and we’re better off for having lived it –better off even in THIS life.
And, of course, none of us is as good as we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we are: We ALL need that last-minute conversion. The basic point is that God is ALWAYS ready to welcome us home, no matter how late we return. What matters is that we DO return, and that is why I as a priest am happy to be always waiting at the end of the telephone: God is always ready to welcome the repentant sinner.