Friday, September 12, 2008
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last.’” (Matthew 20:16)
“SOUL-SURFING” – September 21, 2008
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
“A gas station manager's mistake paid off for Lincoln [Nebraska] drivers who were in the right place at the right time. For 45 minutes, three of the Kabredlo's Convenience Store's four pumps sold premium unleaded gas for 29 cents a gallon. Gas hasn't been that cheap since 1955, according to AAA Nebraska. As news of the cheap fuel spread, lines formed at the store. ‘I was on E, and I filled my tank up for $4,’ [one patron] said.” (Associated Press, 2005)
Indeed, in an era when traveling is an endeavor too expensive for many, what happened at that Nebraska gas pump seemed a near miracle for the excited patrons who took advantage of the manager’s error. Too quickly, though, the mistake was remedied, and what had seemed the answer to prayer disappeared. The drivers yet in line to fill their tanks were brought back to a painful reality: travel is an expensive endeavor. And in truth, while one pays a hefty price for travel on the horizontal plane these days, vertical travel is no less a challenge. Getting from here to heaven is also a costly venture. Indeed, very few get there on 29 cents a gallon!
In the gospel passage we hear today, Jesus tells his disciples a parable both wondrous and troubling: wondrous, because it testifies to God’s mercy; troubling, because it testifies to God’s mystery. The punch line of the parable, delivered by the landowner who paid all the workers the same wage no matter their hours of labor, is this: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16) And having finished the story, I can just picture the stumped disciples staring at Jesus in confusion as he smiles widely at them. “What the heck is he talking about?” they ask among themselves. His smile taking a downturn at their lack of comprehension, Jesus clarifies the meaning of the parable: “God’s ways are not your ways; they’re better!” But tell that to Gene, the in-charge guy most nights in our hospital’s Emergency Department.
Of stout stature, Gene’s hulking presence is immediately softened by a wide smile, frequent wise-crack comment and a heart whose reach far exceeds the length of chunky, muscular arms. Thoroughly schooled as a Catholic, Gene frequently challenges me with those theological questions that, as he laughingly confesses, would have been deemed saucy insolence in his parochial school. “I wouldn’t dare ask Sister Mary Clement the questions I ask you. She was way bigger than me back then in 4th grade. But since I’m now bigger than you, it’s okay.” Basing his theological inquiry upon such reasoning, Gene cornered me in the ER on a recent morning following an exhausting night of caring for the bruised, broken and battered. “What’s going on?” he demanded. Knowing to keep my mouth shut at such an open-ended question, I narrowed my eyes as he continued. “We do our best to keep innocent little kids alive who come in here with all sorts of life-threatening conditions. And in spite of our efforts, we lose.” (I knew Gene was referring to a beautiful 2 year-old who’d died of an infection.) “Then we have these people who keep abusing their bodies with alcohol and drugs, and they come in here over and over again to get patched up, only to return to the street to start the game again. They never die because we keep putting them back together. So, tell me, what’s going on?” Again, I keep silent, just shrugging my shoulders. Then, tension releasing, Gene grabs both my shoulders in imitation of his planned assault on God the Father come the day when Gene passes through the Pearly Gates. “When I get to heaven, I’ve got one question for God: ‘What the heck are you doing?’” Gene all but shouts the question at morning change-of-shift, other staff members turning to observe him once again challenging the Divine Creator. Smiles coming to faces, they all understand. It’s their question too: “God, what the heck are you doing?”
But it’s only a day later, again early morning, when I overhear Gene’s stern voice in ER Room 10 lecturing a patient on healthy living. Actually, it’s more of a sermon than a healthcare lesson. I stand unseen around the corner as Gene preaches to his sole congregant. “You know, God’s given you a body to live in. You can’t keep abusing it like this. Eventually this alcohol’s going to kill you. It’s not what God wants. But it sure seems to be what you want since you keep coming back in here so often like this.” Then, with an emphatic harrumph, Gene exits the room to discover me listening in. I get the first word this time. “Good preaching, Gene! It’s impressive to hear you talking about God!” Assuming that I’m making fun of him, red-in-the-face Gene harrumphs at me too. But I meant what I said. I am impressed. This bear-like man who nightly lumbers about the ER may question the ways of God with annoying regularity, but under it all rests his solid belief that God is good and wants good things for people.
Gas at 29 cents a gallon? Except for a recent 45-minute hiatus from reality in Lincoln, Nebraska, travel on the horizontal hasn’t been that inexpensive since 1955. And the journey to heaven? It’s never been an easy trip! Many who we now call martyrs paid for it with their life blood. While few of us will be asked to shell out that much, we will surely expend much energy and anxiety trying to make earthly sense of things beyond us. Like the disciples wondering at the meaning of the parable in today’s gospel passage, and like Gene lumbering about the hospital ER, we shake our fists heavenward with the question, “What the heck are you doing?” And I imagine a smiling Jesus responding, “God’s ways are not your ways; they’re better! But you’ll have to wait ‘til heaven to understand. For now, just trust me.”
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