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The Spiritual Vineyard

Reflection on the Basilica Hymn for the Fifth Sunday of Sawma

Article by Fr. Andrew YounanFor more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year  on on LifeIt is possible to describe an average person’s day thus: he wakes up in the morning to talk radio playing on his alarm clock, showers and prepares for the day, eats breakfast quickly or in the car, drives to work listening again to the radio, works vigorously all day with perhaps a short lunch, returns home the same way he got to work, has dinner, if he is lucky, with his family, sits in front of the television for a few hours to relax, then goes to sleep and starts over again the next day.

There is nothing painful or unpleasant about this life, but it is the saddest, most tragic life imaginable. Day after day, a life like this goes on without a single real thought. It wastes away without a moment of reflection. To live life like this is to never be aware that you are alive. To stop and think, to have silence and peace, is not the same as to “relax.” In some sense it is the opposite. What we usually mean when we say “relax” is the negation of any thought. It means we do not want to think at all, and so we turn our mind to mindless things. Real silence is the opposite: we think about the most valuable, the most real things, and if we are honest in this endeavor, we eventually arrive at God. But this effort is impossible if every moment is spent either working or recovering from work. Time must be dedicated, and if we do not have such time, it means, perhaps, that we work too much, or that we relax too much.

The Painful Reflection

If thinking about life were completely pleasant, it would be much more common. But because there is an element of pain to it, it is easy to avoid. Indeed, it is quite possible for even prayer to take on a “business-like” nature and become a duty that is completed like mowing the lawn, just to get it done. This is especially sad, since prayer should be the most dramatic moment of the day, not just a list of needs we read off to God, or the blabbering of some memorized prayer.

But “dramatic” is not always “pleasant.” Prayer, and the reflection that is both its prerequisite and its result, brings us nearer to the reality of truth, and sometimes the truth hurts. Especially if Christ is himself the Truth, as he himself said and as we profess, then encountering him can often be a challenge, since by his grace he is constantly calling us to deeper conversion.

In the end, when we begin a life of true prayer and reflection, we realize something very sad about ourselves: “The whole span of my life disperses and vanishes vainly in the confusion of the vanities of this world.” In a very real sense, we have wasted our lives – wasted them on the “vanities of this world” such as money (for which we “disperse” ourselves with work) and pleasure. And on the day we begin to look back and think for the first time, we realize that it was not a single day or week or year that was wasted, never to return, but the whole span of our lives. This is sad indeed, not only because of the waste, but because of what awaits us – the judgment of God, where he will ask us what we have done with our time and our talents.

Working in the Vineyard

In Matthew chapter 20, the Lord describes the kingdom of heaven as a vineyard with workers who were hired at various hours of the day: dawn, morning, noon, afternoon and evening. The last workers hired worked for only an hour, and received the same wage as those who worked the entire day. The generosity of the landowner is not unjust: it was not by any fault of their own that the final workers worked only an hour. Indeed, the reason they did not work all day is not by choice but because no one hired them.

But what about us? We have neglected to work for God by choice, and so what could our payment be? “And because I have not even desired, for a single hour, to prepare myself for tackling work in the spiritual vineyard, I do not expect to receive the wage prepared for the just.” The language in this phrase is complex even to the point of being cumbersome, and it must be. It is not simply that we have not “worked,” like those in the parable who wanted to but could not. Nor have we merely neglected to make ourselves ready or “prepare” ourselves. We have not even desired to prepare ourselves to work. That being the case, it is our own fault that we have not worked in the vineyard, and we have no reason to expect a wage from our Lord.

Not a Worker but a Sick Man

The imagery of our hymn then changes from the robust, healthy worker of Christ’s parable to the sickly leper or servant of reality, described by the Gospel writers. No longer are we considering the ideal believers of Christ’s words, the kingdom of heaven described by our Lord; now we consider this world and ourselves as a part of it. But it was precisely into this world that our Lord was born, and in this world that he ministered, healing the sick of soul and body. It is into our world that he places himself, and in our lives where he still dwells today.

“But, for the hidden wounds of my sins, I ask forgiveness from you, unworthy though I am.” We have the confidence, even the daring, to ask something we do not deserve through the grace of Christ, who reconciled us to God through his Blood. In the end, it is upon his grace that we base our hope, and upon his mercy that we dare to ask for healing and forgiveness: “And so, before I stand before your frightful judgment-seat and am found guilty of my crimes by your just judgment, say the word, and I will be healed by your mercies: O Friend of men, glory to you”