FR. RON BAGLEY, CJM
I worked for 7 years as a prison chaplain in a maximum security prison in upstate New York. It was a part time position of 8 hours per week. This prison also had a hospital inside the facility. Seriously ill patients from other prisons across the state were sent to this prison hospital. Part of my responsibilities was to visit these inmate patients.
One of the patients was a man who was about 35 years old. I will call him Michael (not his real name). He was in jail because of repeatedly driving while drunk and in one crash someone died because of his drunken driving. While in prison, Michael was diagnosed with cancer and an incurable liver disease. The doctors determined that there was nothing they could do for him. His disease was too advanced. I would visit Michael almost every week and we would talk about his life, about his mother who was all alone, and about his struggle to understand why he was suffering.
At first he spoke about how he thought that God was punishing him for the way he had lived. He had never been very religious. He hadn’t been to church in many years. He was not even able to pray. Michael had a hard time believing that God still loved him or cared about him at all. I listened to his struggles and tried to share with him an image of a loving and forgiving God.
Finally, one week he asked me: “Do you think that God would ever forgive me for all the hurt I have brought upon my family and so many other people?” I assured him that Jesus came precisely to let sinners know they are forgiven and that God has a special love for sinners.
Slowly, he began to pray and even started attending the weekly Mass in the hospital. I asked him if he wanted to go to confession and receive the anointing of the sick. He agreed and, after confessing, he cried as I pronounced the words of absolution. He cried again as I anointed his forehead and hands with the oil of the sick. He was finally able to accept God’s forgiveness.
The correction officers (“guards”) ridiculed him for finding God in prison, his “jail house conversion.” They also told me that I was foolish to waste so much of my precious time with him. Some of the other inmates also ridiculed him. But many understood.
Then I worked with the nursing supervisor to try and get Michael released to the care of his mother. The state parole board refused his request for medical parole. We succeeded in getting him released to a nursing home where he could get better care during his last days on earth. At least he didn’t die in prison. After he died, I offered his funeral Mass at my parish church because he did not have a parish of his own.
The Sunday after the funeral Mass, I shared Michael’s story in my homily in the parish. Many people were touched by his struggles and his final acceptance of God’s love and mercy. But some people told me that it did not seem fair that Michael could live such an immoral life and then at the last minute decide to change. One parishioner asked me if there is such a thing as different categories in heaven. In other words, was there a better place/reward for those who had been faithful all their lives?
I could not help but think about the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel. Why did the workers hired late in the day get the same wages as those hired early in the morning? Why will my friend Michael get the same reward in heaven as those of us who were faithful all our lives?
The key to understanding this parable is in today’s 1st reading from the prophet Isaiah:
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts
God’s ways are not our ways. We want to know why God does not act as we do. We ask questions that indicate that we want God to do things the way we would do them. We project on to God our human perspectives and approaches to life.
In reality, God wants to know why we don’t act as he does. God is kind and merciful. God is always ready to have a sinner turn back to him. God’s justice is always tempered with mercy.
We humans have a tendency to be less merciful. We demand retribution. We have an idea of justice that says that you ought to get only what you deserve. But God’s grace is freely given. You don’t earn God’s mercy.
There are at least two applications of today’s parable for our lives:
First, we need to recognize that it is never too late to accept the love and mercy of God. Jesus is always ready to welcome us as his disciples. I met many men in prison who told me they thought it was too late for them. They said that they had lived for too long in a way that was not pleasing to God. They did not believe that God could forgive them and accept them. They were thinking as human being think, not as God thinks. Each of us can to turn to the Lord at any time. You don’t have to be a hardened criminal to seek a deeper relationship with the Lord. It is never too late to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ. We can also encourage our relatives and friends to do the same. We can tell them it is never too late to turn to the Lord.
Secondly, we need to imitate God’s ways in our own lives. We can imitate God’s mercy, God’s patience, God’s willingness to forgive and to give a second chance to others. Although God’s ways are not our ways, we can learn from God how to be merciful, generous and loving toward all. With God’s grace we can become more and more like Christ every day.