Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-27; Mt 20:1-16

There are some stories you hear or read about and remember all your life; they somehow always stay fresh. I have one of my own in mind right now. The story takes place in France in the 1890s and concerns a young man who was avidly studying to be a scientist at the University of Paris. He was lapping up every bit of knowledge he could get. One holiday season he boarded a train to go back to his family home for vacation. Looking for a compartment to sit in, he came upon one which was occupied only by an old man who was looking through some notes. The student went in and sat down; neither acknowledged the other. After some time the old man put his notes away and began to pray his rosary. This was too much for the student and he spoke up: "Surely you don’t believe in that superstition any more; science is showing that all such religious stuff is false." The old man looked at him quizzically and asked, "What is this science you are talking about?" And the student began to tell him about the rise of modern science, the experimental method, the use of mathematical calculations, and projections, and so on. The old man put his rosary away and listened intently. As the train began to slow down, the old man said, "This is my stop coming. If I give you my card, will you write to me more about this ‘science’ you speak of. " The student said he would gladly. He slipped the old man’s card into his pocket and jumped up to help the old man get his bag from the upper rack. He assisted him to the door and off the train. The old man thanked him and told him to remember to write him. The student went back very satisfied to his seat. After the train had left the station, he pulled out the old man’s card to see who he would be writing to. It said simply: Louis Pasteur, President of the French Academy of Science.

The young student was so sure he had everything in hand; he knew exactly where everything was going. The world was operating the way it should be. And then he met the old man. That ‘s a lot like the disgruntled workers in today’s gospel passage. They were pretty sure they had figured out that they would get a nice bonus. And then they were caught up short by the owner’s justice and generosity at the same time.

These are really stories about all of us and the common human temptation of thinking that we have got it all figured out. We like to do that so often with things religious. We want to think that we have a pretty good bead on God’s intentions. That’s why we surely don’t like to hear the first reading from Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." This has to be pretty disconcerting for anyone who takes religion as a part of daily life. You have to wonder how you can ever move forward.

Maybe it’s not about moving forward. There is a strain of Jewish spirituality that begins and ends with those famous words from the book of Job: "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." (1:21) In this spirituality you can’t know ever what God’s plans are, so there’s no use trying. All one can do is praise God’s name.

I think that was the attitude of Louis Pasteur. Certainly he was one of the greatest medical scientists of modern times—a pioneer in so many medical breakthroughs. No one was a stricter scientist than he was. He believed fully in science. And yet he left explicit instructions that he was to be buried with a rosary in his fingers. "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

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