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God’s labor of love

St. Francis was one of the brilliant lights that shone during the dark ages of the Church, when popes and cardinals and bishops were behaving like worldly emperors

LABOR OF LOVE is what they call it in English when you do your work as an act of love. You don’t mind the effort and the sacrifice that goes with it. Imagine your grandmother giving you for your birthday a sweater, which she hand-stitched for a whole month? Or imagine your farmer-friend giving you hand-picked, home grown, organic vegetables which he himself cultivated and harvested?

Today’s Gospel describes in great detail a farmer’s labor of love on his vineyard. The description is actually borrowed from our 1st reading from Isaiah. Listen, “My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside; he spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines; within it he built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine press.”

The description makes you react even more strongly to the injustice later done by the stewards who take over a property that was merely entrusted to them. They dishonor the owner’s LABOR OF LOVE with their own LABOR OF GREED.

The story in Isaiah identifies Israel as the vineyard. But in the parable, as retold by Jesus, Israel becomes the wicked steward. Today, as we celebrate the 5th Sunday of Creation, I propose to widen the application: with the earth as the vineyard, and us human beings as the stewards. What is it that turns us into bad stewards of our common home? The poison of greed and covetousness, which blinds people with the toxic desire for profit, for power, control, and ownership.

You can also apply it immediately on global capitalistic economies, whether those run by private corporations or those run by the state, the effect is the same. When greed for profit becomes the motive, both the world’s resources and human labor become mere instruments of production for profit. Nothing can be more destructive than this virus of avarice that infects humankind and makes us look at creation and our fellow human beings as mere tools to be exploited for gain.

Work is supposed to be an expression of our creative nature, a participation in God’s activity. Genesis portrays God as a busy God, busy with his work of creation. God constantly looks at what he does, and sees that it is good. He is happy with the result, he is fulfilled about it, and so he concludes his six days of hard work with Sabbath, not just to rest but to consecrate the fruit of his labor.

But work becomes a curse for Adam and Eve later in the same book of Genesis. In the context of sin, of avarice and the desire for power, work turns into a curse; it becomes oppressive, no longer fulfilling. Genesis 3:17-19: “Cursed is the ground because of you! In hard labor you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you… By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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The global pandemic has forced the world to stop production during the months of the total lockdowns. And when it was resumed, it had to be reduced radically in order to stem the tide of transmission of the disease. One viral mutation has suddenly put the world on a reset mode, something of a sabbatical that should make us reconsider our priorities.

This brings to mind the saint whose feast day is supposed to be today, if it had not fallen on a Sunday: SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI, the man after whom the present pope named himself, and from whom he got his inspiration for his two encyclicals: LAUDATO SI’ and FRATELLI TUTTI, the new one which he is releasing today.

St. Francis was one of the brilliant lights that shone during the dark ages of the Church, when popes and cardinals and bishops were behaving like worldly emperors, princes and power brokers. Francis made them realize the vanity of the human pursuit of wealth and power, the madness of the cruel wars and violent crusades in the Holy Land. He had earlier enjoyed wealth and power and had marched to war like a knight in shining armor. But he came home from war disillusioned. He had seen so much blood he was not the same again after that experience. His family thought he had lost his mind; his father sued him for giving away his property to the poor. He denounced him publicly, stripped him of his inheritance, and reduced him to poverty.

But instead of making him miserable, poverty liberated him and made him discover his true wealth and the beauty around him. He was disowned by his family but he rediscovered his kinship with the rest of his fellow creatures. He regarded the sun and the earth, the moon, the wind and water as his brothers and sisters and mother. He discovered a larger family in creation and among the poor. This was all captured beautifully in that musical film on his life, entitled, BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON. It says,

“Brother Sun and Sister Moon,
I seldom see you seldom hear your tune,
preoccupied with selfish misery…”

“Brother Wind and Sister Air
Open my eyes to visions pure and fair,
that I may see the glory around me…”

Suddenly, the eyes of Francis were opened to the beauty around him. He challenged society to renounce the ugliness of pride and arrogance and invited people to see their true beauty in compassion for the poor and the care of creation. The song continues and says,

“I am God’s creature,
of Him I am part,
I feel His love awakening my heart…”

“Brother Sun and Sister Moon
I now do see you,
I can hear your tune,
so much in love with all that I survey…”

Today’s Psalm ends with a prayer which should be our prayer during this pandemic: “Give us new life and we will call upon your name, O Lord God of hosts, restore us, let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.”

To see the face of God in the world around us, to let his face shine on us us so that we can see our true dignity in the joy of human fraternity, solidarity and (what Pope Francis calls) social friendship—no matter what race, color, creed or language people might belong to. To see, not just in every human being but in every creature a bother, a sister, a mother, a friend.

This is a homily delivered by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, acting president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, on Oct. 4, 2020, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 5th Sunday of the Season of Creation, Mt 21:33-43

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