[HOMILY] Will the Christian Life Make Us Happy?
I may be dating myself here, but there was a popular video game about ten years ago called Guitar Hero that a friend and I really enjoyed. Within a few days of playing this game, my buddy and I were decently proficient- we felt pretty good about ourselves. On about day three of Guitar Hero binging, my older brother came wandering out of his room to joined us. Just to inform you, my brother Edward is a great musician, but guitar was his first love; he is truly pushing the limits of what the instrument can do. Even ten years ago, he was already very good, so he figured he would try his hand at this game. He used the first round to get the hang of the controls, then put the game on the hardest setting and beat it easily. After this, he stood up with a dull look on his face, shrugged, and wandered back into his room to play his real guitar.
My buddy and I looked at each other with a look of mutual understanding, turned off Guitar Hero and went outside (probably to play basketball or Bolf). You see, in that moment my brother had revealed something very profound to us. I think we imagined that, in playing that game, we were in pursuit of something real, whether that was making music or learning an instrument or whatever.
However, my brother, who actually was pursuing those things, tore back our façade. First, because he was an actual musician, this game was joke for him. But it also wasn’t at all fun or interesting because he had experienced the real thing! My friend and I were good at that game within days, but it would have plateaued and become boring within a few more days. Real instruments, whether guitar, violin, piano, or any other, are a life-long endeavor. It takes hundreds of hours before we can take any real joy in what we are doing, and thousands before anyone aside from a loving parent can take joy in the sound we produce. Yet a real instrument, because it requires virtue, can actually bring joy.
Now what does this story have anything to do with the gospel? Was it just a shameless promotion of my brother’s musical skill? No, rather- I think the realization my friend and I had when we watched a real musician at work is a great analogy for the realization we must have as Christians if we ever want to be happy. If my buddy and I continued to believe that a fake guitar video game could provide the same satisfaction that real music could provide, we would have kept pursuing it. Yet, no matter how long we kept after it, how much effort we put into it, we would never come any closer to making real music, simply because it is something that game could not provide.
Now our Gospel today confronts us with the similar questions on a spiritual plane- Do we actually believe that the Christian life will make us happy? More precisely, can it give us a happiness the world cannot give? If we do believe this, it has real consequences for our lives- serious consequences. Let’s look to the gospel for guidance here.
Jesus gives us the parable of the landowner and his vineyard. Often, we look at this parable from a worldly perspective and come away thinking the landowner is a socialist or simply a bad business man. But we must examine it from the perspective of the Christian life for it to make any sense to us. There are laborers who begin work right away, who bear the days burden and the heat. The restless master of the vineyard goes out five times during the day to find more laborers for the vineyard. Just an hour before the day is done, he finds those who still stand idle and invites them to work. Yet for one hour, they receive the same pay- is this not correctly pointed out to be a massive injustice? These folks basically got away with living nice easy lives while we worked!
The interpretation for our spiritual life: The master of the vineyard is Christ and the laborers are his disciples… us! It follows that laboring in the vineyard is living the Christian life, being Christ’s disciple. But isn’t it true that we often find ourselves jealous of those outside the vineyard, jealous that they have so much lower standards, that they can decide their own truth, they can live lives of pleasure. The words of the psalmist are often fitting; “They have no struggles, their bodies are sleek and strong, free from common burdens, not plagued by ills.” Yet on so many occasions after a life of dissipation they come home in the 11th hour, and if we are honest, we find amidst our joy a sense of mingled envy for the worldly joys we missed. Why is this, why would we be jealous?
Because the Christian life is difficult- we are called to fast, do penance, live simply, evangelize those around us (which is just plain awkward and confrontational sometimes). We are called to care for the poor before ourselves, all the while living a moral law which is so difficult- many would say it is impossible. This is the labor of the Christian which the world does not demand. Yet, Jesus tells us this is precisely what will bring us joy. Yes, we are promised joy in eternal life, yet Jesus promises joy now, 100-fold in this life. Falling in love with Jesus Christ means giving our whole lives over to him, it means working joyfully in his vineyard.
If we are honest, we just aren’t convinced this is true. We don’t think the Christian life will make us happy. For many of us, we may do a lot of Christian things, but the source of our joy is elsewhere- in the many good things of the world. The great Pope and Church Father St. Gregory the Great reminds us to examine our lives, and if, after examination, we see our life’s goal as anything other than God’s mission, we are like the those outside the vineyard, wandering aimlessly around, looking for meaningful work. If we live our lives for ourselves, seeking our own gain, we have not even entered the vineyard. Instead we are like my buddy and I playing Guitar hero, expecting to experience the joy only real music can bring.
So today, do an examen, do you actually believe Christ offers you something the world cannot? If you do, thank God for the gift of faith, then look at what stands in the way of doing his work in your life. What do you think you are going to lose if you really begin to give your life to Christ, to live as his love demands? Archbishop Charles Chaput, when he was still in Denver, told our seminary that, “Following Christ at a safe distance is neither safe nor is it following Christ.”
We cannot follow Christ at a safe distance. If we have really experienced Christian joy, we would be like my brother, like a true musician who tastes the fleeting joy offered by a video game and walks away unimpressed. Laboring in God’s vineyard is the only thing that brings true happiness in this world. This is not a fleeting, easy-to-achieve joy, as the world offers us in a billion different forms. Rather, it is the difficult, hard fought joy of something real, something that matters. Yes, the Christian life is difficult, it is hard work. But if we dive in, it will be our joy to bear the day’s burden with our Lord. Amen.
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)