25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Between Heaven And Earth
Between Heaven And Earth
Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 144:2-3,8-9,17-18; Philippians 1:20-24,27; Matthew 20:1-16
Ooh baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.
They say in heaven love comes first.
We’ll make heaven a place on earth.
Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with these words? I suspect that at least some of you are. They’re the opening lines to the song, popularized by Belinda Carlisle in the 1980’s, entitled Heaven is a Place on Earth. It’s a very happy, a very optimistic song. A song bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. A woman has recently experienced a radical change in her life. She has fallen in love. And she sings of how love has transformed her:
In this world we’re just beginning
To understand the miracle of living.
Baby, I was afraid before.
I’m not afraid anymore.
Before, she was anxious and alone. But now, no longer. Now she’s filled with joy. She knows what it feels like when people allow love to take first place in their lives. Before, heaven was a million miles away. Now she feels as though it’s a place on earth.
Quite a striking change of perspective, isn’t it? And perhaps those of us who have ever fallen in love will be able to appreciate just how profound the change is.
A radical change in how one looks upon and lives one’s life. This too is what our Mass readings are inviting us to experience today. Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, the first reading tells us. Let the wicked man abandon his way, the evil man his thoughts. Instead, let them seek God, whose ways are as different from ours as the heavens are high above earth. At first glance, this invitation might appear to be nothing more than a call to live a more law-abiding life. A more Singaporean life. Be sure to go to Mass on Sundays. Say your prayers everyday. Be good. Don’t gossip. Marry young. Have more kids. Work harder. Spend less time on Facebook... Of course, all this is good and important. But it isn’t enough. Our readings are calling us to an even more radical change.
We begin to appreciate just how radical when we ponder more deeply the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel. Notice the surprising actions of the landowner. For one thing, when he wants workers, he doesn’t send his steward to hire them. He does it himself. He even takes the trouble of going to the market place, where he interviews everyone personally. He doesn't use an employment agency. He deals directly with each worker.
What’s even more surprising is the manner in which the landowner pays his employees. Instead of rewarding each one according to the amount of work that has been done, he chooses to pay the latecomers the same as those who started earlier. How very unfair, we may think. Surely, this is against the rules! But our protest is a good indicator to us of how radically different is our approach to things from that of the landowner.
Scripture scholars tell us that, in the original Greek, the word for landowner means something like the one in charge of a household. And it is from the root word household that we get the word economy. All of which helps us to see why we find the landowner’s actions so deeply disturbing. What we have here is a clash of radically different economies. Jesus begins the parable by saying that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. So the landowner is managing his household according to a heavenly economy. An economy based on love and generosity. He owns everything. And he is very happy to give it all away, without insisting that the recipients be proven worthy to receive it.
But our earthly economy is very different. It’s based not on generosity but merit. To get something, we have to show that we deserve it. Through the qualifications we have attained, the work we have done, the money we have accumulated, or the connections we have made. Nothing is for free. Everything comes at a price. A price that is set by rules. To get something you have to follow the rules. You have to keep the law. And this earthly economy–based on rules determining each person’s worth– operates not just in secular affairs. It also influences how we relate to God. We treat God as someone before whom we need to prove our worth. Often desperately. But, of course, none of us can truly justify ourselves in the sight of God. We are far from perfect. As a result, we often feel guilty. We’re insecure. We even envy others for their gifts. Without realizing it, because we operate within an earthly economy, our religion often makes us very lonely and fearful people.
Which is why Belinda Carlisle’s song is so refreshing. It helps to remind us that God operates within a very different economy from the one we’re used to. It invites us to let go of our anxiety, to no longer be afraid, but to allow ourselves to fall in love with God. The same God who wants so desperately to bless us and to love us. The God who goes out everyday into the market places of our lives to gather us into the warm embrace of his generosity and compassion. Even though we may feel deeply unworthy.
But that’s also only half the story. For as helpful as the song is for pushing us into the arms of God, it still lacks something, doesn’t it? What it describes is, quite obviously, a honeymoon love. Here, everything is bright and cheery. Here, heaven is already a place on earth. And that is true. But not the whole truth. For, as those of us who have ever loved another know only too well, there’s more to love than that. Love doesn’t consist only in warm and tender feelings. Very often it also brings great tension. Not unlike the tension described by St. Paul in the second reading. From his prison in Rome, while awaiting his own execution, this great lover of Christ can’t decide whether he wishes to live or to die. I do not know what I should choose, he says. I am caught in this dilemma: I want to be gone and be with Christ... but for me to stay alive in this body is a more urgent need for your sake. Because of his love for the Lord, Paul is torn between heaven and earth. And his experience shows us that heaven is both already and also not yet a place on earth. Christ has already come. But we are also still waiting for him to come again. There's still much work to be done in his vineyard. Hungry mouths to feed. Broken hearts to mend...
And that’s the challenge for us, isn’t it? To have our hearts fixed on heaven, even as we keep our hands working, and our feet walking, upon this earth. This is the necessary tension that our readings are calling us to embrace today. A tension that is difficult but life-giving, because it is rooted and grounded in God's love.
Sisters and brothers, they say in heaven love comes first. How can we help to bring heaven a little closer to earth today?