January 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 6

We Must Pay The Rent

Msgr. Frank Wissel

Photo of a for rent sign in a windowAnyone with a discerning eye can clearly see that we live in a world of inequalities. Some people are rich and others are poor. Some are intellectually brilliant, others are mentally dull. Some are physically robust; others are frail of body. Some are born in lands of limitless opportunity and yet others begin life in places where sheer survival is a daily struggle. Some are reared in homes filled with warmth and wisdom, while others grow up in families torn by bitterness and strife. Some seem to have every advantage while others appear to have none at all.

Between these two broad groups of people, the greater challenge would seem to lie with the disadvantaged. How can they rise above their limitations? How can they overcome their handicaps? None of us would make light of that challenge. Our greatest admiration is reserved for those who, seeming to have little or no chance, have somehow managed to lead happy and productive lives.

A perfect example is when we think of Helen Keller, and our hearts are deeply moved. Before her second birthday, a disease left her totally blind and deaf. Nevertheless, at age 24 she was graduated with honors from Radcliffe College. Starting with what appeared to be a hopeless circumstance, she went on to become a prolific writer, a tireless worker for charitable organizations and one of the most admired persons in the world.

Something inside of us spontaneously applauds people such as her. They make us proud of the human race. They give us hope that somehow we, too, might overcome our limitations, and do something good with our lives. But overcoming handicaps is not the only challenge to be faced. There is the challenge of living with advantages, which is no less difficult than the other. In fact, sometimes, it can be even more difficult.

Jesus felt great compassion for underprivileged people, and gave himself to meeting their needs. But he also expressed concern for people of privilege, so that their advantages would not ruin their lives.

There is a Gospel reading where Jesus told a story about "a property owner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug out a vat, and erected a tower." Each of those steps was an improvement, designed to enhance production. The vineyard was planted so that it would not grow wild. Isaiah's version of the same story says the owner used "the choicest wines". The hedge was a fence to keep out animals. The vat was a receptacle used in the harvesting of grapes and catching their juice. The other was a vantage point from which to watch for marauders. Having done all of this, the owner leased the vineyard to tenant farmers. They had every good reason to expect a bountiful harvest, but such was not to be.

At the end of the story, the owner was yet to collect a single cluster of grapes from his vineyard. In a very real sense, we are like those tenant farmers. We have been entrusted with a part of God's vineyard. We have been given ample opportunity to lead useful, productive lives. Each of us is endowed with at least a few advantages. We did not create them nor did we cause them. They are part of our inheritance. They are gifts from our parents, from our culture and ultimately from God himself.

Photo of a cluster of purple grapesThose who possess them deserve no credit, and those who lack them are not to be blamed. Our only responsibility is to accept them in the right spirit and use them in the right way.

It seems to be that only one of two attitudes is possible regarding life's advantages. W can look upon them as our own personal property to be used or misused in whatever way we may choose.

The tenant farmers in our story did that. When the owners sent servants to collect the rent, they refused to pay. When he sent his son, they plotted to kill him and claim the vineyard as their own. That ancient scene is reenacted every day in the lives of individuals, communities and nations. There was the time not long ago in the United States when we had the "me decade." The majority of people seemed to be concerned with little else than getting everything for themselves. We are not perfect, but we are certainly a generous generation.

There is only one other attitude that we could take toward our advantages. We could look upon them as an endowment, belonging to God, but entrusted to us for the benefit of others. That is what the owner wanted from his tenants.

God expects the same things from you and me. He has entrusted us with certain advantages. They are in our hands now. We can do with them as we will, but they are not ours. They belong to him.

He wants us to use them for awhile, but he also wants us to pay the rent. And the only way we can do that is to use them for the benefit of others as well as ourselves.