I was in Portugal for five days last week; the occasion was the celebration of a Derry wedding.
Unusual for a wedding abroad, over one hundred and fifty guests attended the ceremony. So strolling down the main strip in Praia de Rocha was like walking in Shipquay Street. Waiting on the plane home I decided to hover around the back of the queue, with fixed seating there was no need to rush. As I was about to climb down the steps onto the runway I noticed a father with a double pram containing one child with the mother holding another infant. Without thinking I offered the father help with the pram. Only halfway down the stairs did I notice the child was wearing a Man United jersey. It was too late to stop I had to continue despite my inner protests. The family were from Donegal and when they thanked me I simply responded ‘you’re lucky I didn’t see the United jersey.’
We can all place limits on our generosity often governed by our own prejudices or selfish interests. Reflecting on this weekend’s gospel Ron Rolheiser explains how in a masterful book on grace, Piet Fransen suggests that we can test how well we understand grace by gauging our reaction to this story: Imagine a man who during his whole life is entirely careless about God and morality. He’s selfish, ignores the commandments, ignores all things religious, and is basically consumed with pursuing his own pleasure—wine, sex, and song. Then, just hours before his death, he repents of his irresponsibility, makes a sincere confession, receives the sacraments of the church, and dies inside that conversion. What’s our spontaneous reaction to that story? Isn’t it wonderful that he received the grace of conversion before he died? Or, more likely: The lucky beggar! He got away with it! He got to have all that pleasure and still gets to go to heaven! Yet Rolheiser explains how we need to remember to whom those words are being addressed in the parable of the generous landowner: Jesus is addressing Peter whose asks what reward awaits him and his fellow disciples who have left everything and followed him… and, in effect, through this parable, is addressing all good people who are morally and religiously bearing the heat of the day. And Jesus is assuring us that we will be rewarded richly for doing this. But, as the parable makes clear, there’s a catch: Simply put, we will be rewarded with heaven and it will be wonderful; but, and this is the catch, we can have everything and enjoy nothing because we are watching what everyone else is getting! Continuing Rolheiser quotes Thomas Halik, a Czech writer, who suggests that one of the reasons why so many people in the world reject the churches is that they see us as “embittered moralizers”, older brothers of the prodigal son, doing our religious and moral duties, but bitterly, and criticizing those who don’t live like us out of hidden envy.