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Doing Right Because It Is Right

Sermon
We Walk By Faith
Gospel Sermons For Sundays After Pentecost (Middle Third)
In a vast field that stretched as far as the eye could see, a great multitude of people milled about waiting for something to happen. Quite unexpectedly a messenger came into the midst of the people and announced, "You are to walk around this field 25 times carrying a baton." The people were a bit mystified by these words and asked, "What will happen when we finish?" "You will learn the answer when you are done," came the reply. So the crowd ambled off to make its first lap of the field. It took a full day at a leisurely pace to walk around the field, but they eventually made the circuit the first time. This feat called for a celebration.

As the crowd celebrated they decided, just for the heck of it, to make the next lap more interesting. They broke into teams to race against each other. The task would not be so boring and winners and losers could be determined. This would transform a mundane task into a fun-filled event. So the people separated themselves into five teams: Reds, Yellows, Blacks, Browns, and Whites. There were some in the great multitude, however, who refused to join the teams. They called themselves "The Others" because they did something different than the teams. Strangely, it was The Others who were given the baton to carry, since the teams argued amongst themselves over which group should have it. The five teams, the Reds, Yellows, Blacks, Browns, and Whites, took their marks and then took off at breakneck speed. The Yellow team won the second lap. The teams decided after the second circuit of the field, just for the heck of it, that they would station various members of each team at select sites around the field. In this way no one would have to run the whole distance but rather each would run an individual segment of the whole. Thus, the relay race was invented. As the five teams raced around the field in relays, The Others simply continued on their way around the field. The teams thought The Others were "out of it."

The competition between the teams became more and more intense. Soon the racing teams realized that slow runners were a liability to the team's chances to win. They decided, therefore, that only the fast runners would compete. This, however, did not seem to satisfy those who were the best on each team, so it was decided, just for the heck of it, that each team would be represented by one individual and races would be held in measured distances. On one lap the representative of the Browns won and on another it was the Black team member who was victorious. Meanwhile, The Others continued to plod their way around the field, lap after lap after lap. When they completed all 25 laps they held a celebration. When the messenger arrived in the midst of the party The Others asked, "You told us at the beginning that we would learn our reward when we finished. We have completed the 25 laps of the field. What will we get?" "Your reward," said the messenger, "is that you made it." The Others were stunned. "Is that all there is? We have made this long journey just to say, 'We made it'?" When The Others thought about their accomplishment, however, they had to agree that this was the reason they were celebrating -- because they had made it. "But what about the teams?" asked one of The Others, seeing that none of them were present. "The teams," said the messenger, "as you can see, they didn't make it. And that's the heck of it!"1

Completing a task, making no attempt to gain personal glory, doing what is right simply because it is the right thing to do -- these are some of the important ideas brought to light by John Aurelio's thought-provoking story, "The Game." Today's Gospel passage reflects a similar message while demonstrating the authority of the Lord in its transmission.

Jesus sets up a scenario which is rather common in our contemporary experience. One is asked to go to the vineyard to complete a task. He says that he will do the correct thing; he will go as his father asks. To those who would observe this scene, the son has made the correct choice; all assume he will do what he says. The second son outwardly does precisely what should not be done. His refusal to do what his father asks appears to all observers as the wrong thing. From the beginning of the story one son would clearly be labeled in the right and the other in the wrong.

As we all know, however, appearances are often deceiving. What is witnessed today and what happens tomorrow are often contrary. The son who appears to be right, because of what he says, does what is wrong. He fails to go to the vineyard. The son who all perceive to be wrong, because of his initial refusal, in the end does the right thing. The act of doing what is right speaks more forcefully than words.

Jesus tells the chief priests and elders of the people that they exemplify the behavior of the first son. These spiritual leaders have all the appearance of righteousness. They say the right things and even act in strict conformity to the Law, but they place no faith in Jesus. They ridicule tax collectors and prostitutes, those labeled by society as outcasts and evildoers. Like The Others in John Aurelio's story, they were considered "out of it" by the people of their day. Yet, it is these people who are open to the Lord's call. They are the ones who have the courage to place their faith in Jesus. Those who appear to be wrong are the ones who in the end do what is right. They are not looking for applause, a word of compliment, or recognition. No, they simply follow in the Lord's footsteps and listen to his words because they know it is the right thing to do. Jesus tells us that it is these people who will enter eternal life before any who perceive themselves to be righteous.

Like the Jews of that day, we might question Jesus' action in placing those whom society has labeled as outcasts over those whom the world has vested with power and authority. The first half of today's Gospel demonstrates the authority the Lord possesses to do what he does. Jesus possesses authority that does not have human origins. The Lord's authority comes from the Father. Last week we found it difficult to understand the magnanimous mercy and patience of God -- that with God it is never too late. Today we must realize that Jesus has authority over all. God looks to the heart and knows us better than we know ourselves. We might be able to fool those around us and maybe even ourselves with words and platitudes, but we can never hide who we are and what we do from God.

We live in a world where status, name, achievement, and the perception of good and righteousness are greatly rewarded. We are told over and over again that we must outdistance the competition and in the process make certain that what we say and do appears to be correct, positive, and profitable. Like the teams in "The Game," the Reds, Yellows, Blacks, Browns, and Whites, we need to finish first and outshine others. We don't want the labels of "others" or "outsiders." We don't want people, especially those who influence our lives, to perceive anything in us except that which is perfectly acceptable with the contemporary mindset. To hold unpopular views or to stand up for one's convictions in the face of opposition is not the image we are told to portray. Yet, this often is the right thing to do.

Doing what is right, simply getting the job done, because it is right and needs to be done, has, unfortunately, become passe. In John Aurelio's story The Others plodded along and they got the job done. Their method was not flashy or pretty; they did not draw any attention. They were asked to complete a task and they did it. The teams were more interested in not being bored, in competition and determining winners, but in the end they did not complete the task. The Others who appeared to be "out of it" were the ultimate victors.

Humility is a great virtue. It is integral to do what is right simply because it is right. Jesus came to our world to fulfill a mission given him by the Father. He did not have to die to complete his mission of salvation; another way certainly could have been found. Jesus, however, chose to die to demonstrate the great Christian paradox that we find life through death. Saint Paul uses an ancient Christological hymn in his letter to the Philippians (2:6-8) to emphasize the humility of Jesus in fulfilling the wish of the Father and completing his mission to bring salvation. "Though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross." Jesus' death was not pretty or glorious; it was, on the contrary, an ignoble way to die. Jesus was humiliated before all Jerusalem. But, the Lord got the job done. He finished the course and did what was right because it was the right thing to do. At the time there may have been few who seemed to care, but Jesus' sacrifice gave all of us the possibility of eternal life.

We, like The Others, the second son in the parable, and Jesus, must do what is right because it is right. We always want a reward, a compliment, or some benefit. Surely we all need positive feedback to nourish us and keep us going, but this must not be the reason we do what we do. Many times today doing the right thing is not popular and it is seldom easy. We must realize, however, that the Christian life well lived will never be easy. Like The Others and Jesus in his day, we may be labeled as "out of it" for our convictions or the choice we make to do the right thing. Doing what is right may even cause us some problems or put others against us. To be a true follower of Jesus, however, we can expect no better than the Master! Let us not worry about a title, the perks of position, or our individual accomplishment in society. Rather, let us do what is right, because it is right, and be satisfied with that. It is the crucified whom we follow, to death and ultimately to eternal life.

____________

1. Paraphrased from "The Game," in John R. Aurelio, Colors! Stories of the Kingdom (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 81-84.

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