Never Too Late to Say Yes
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. September 27, 2020
Most of us can relate quite easily to BOTH sons in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. There’s a part of us that is spontaneously generous and wants to say “Yes” to everything – but when the chips are down, and we have to confront our very real limits, we don’t always deliver the goods. There is also a part of us that just wants to be left alone, that feels overburdened by our already-considerable responsibilities, that is initially reluctant to say ‘yes’ – but which rises to the occasion when something really important is as stake. Every one of us deals with this predicament in one way or another: when to say yes, when to say no – and how to follow through on both of those answers.
With the exception of Jesus and, according to our Catholic Tradition, Mary – whose “YES” to God was total and unconditional – most of us live in that uncomfortable tension between “YES” and “NO”, between cooperation with God and resistance to God, between a loving embrace of our duties and the desire to escape from them. It’s all part of being human, I suppose. It’s tempting to read into this Gospel the idea that no matter what people ask of us, we should always say “yes” and do whatever they ask. We see the “good son” as the one who both says “yes” AND “does what he is told.”
Much earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, though, we hear Jesus tell his disciples: “Let your YES mean YES and your NO mean NO; anything else comes from the Evil One.” What we are called to is not just to say “yes” to anything, independently of our ability to deliver on it. In fact, it can be argued that a person who is incapable of saying NO cannot really commit to anything, because to say “Yes” to something inevitably demands that we let go of something else. In spite of what our consumer society keeps telling us, we really CAN’T “have it all.”
The tougher task is to discern carefully what are those things that God wants us to say YES to, and to give ourselves to these wholeheartedly – all the while bearing in mind that this “yes” demands, by its very nature, the capacity and decision to say “no” to those things that get in the way of or are otherwise incompatible with the primary commitment we have made.
I wish there was a foolproof way of knowing when to say “yes” to and when to say “no”. For most of us, it’s the school of hard knocks, the tried-and-true method of trial and error, that gives us the self-knowledge and self-confidence we need to make these choices well. This presupposes, of course, that we have the humility to admit our mistakes, and the wisdom to actually learn from them, rather than repeat the same ones over and over!
One of my favourite spiritual authors is a Quaker named Parker J. Palmer. Listen to what he says in his book Let Your Life Speak – Listening to the Voice of Vocation:
“Today I understand vocation not as a goal to be achieved, but a gift to be received: accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation comes not from a voice ‘out there’ telling me to become something I am not, but from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to live out the name given to me at birth by God.”
“True vocation joins self and service: it is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” “Appropriate self-care is not a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.” (30)
If we want to give ourselves well and wisely, we must recognize and accept our limits, no less than we do our gifts and talents:
“When I try to give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, as if God has no way of channeling love and generosity to others except through me. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout results from trying to give what I do not possess: it reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” (49)
“If we are to live our lives fully and well, we must learn to embrace the opposites, to live in a creative tension between our limits and our potentials. We must honor our limits in a way that does not distort our nature, and we must trust and use our gifts in ways that fulfil the potential God gave us. We must take the “no” of the way that closes behind us and find the guidance it has to offer, so that we can say “yes” to the way that opens up and respond positively, with the “yes” of our lives.” (55)
Some people live their lives saying YES to everything. They impress us at first by their generosity, but sooner or later, they end up disappointing us, because it is not humanly possible to be all things for all people all the time. No one person possesses the gifts and inclinations and time and energy to fulfill every demand that is made on them. (Yes – even you parents out there!) Other people take the opposite tack, and protect themselves by a systematic “NO” to any perceived intrusion from the outside world. Such people may never go through “burnout”, but then, if they were never “on fire” in the first place, who is going to notice if they do?
Jesus calls us to neither of these extremes. He invites us neither to frenetic activity, nor slothful avoidance. Jesus invites us to embrace calm, purposeful, joyful commitment in our daily tasks and responsibilities. As both the first reading and Gospel point out, we cannot sit on the laurels of our past achievements as a pretext for failing to act in the present. For the present is all we have. And what Jesus saw, in his own time and place, was prostitutes and tax collectors changing their lives and turning back to God, while the chief priests and elders stubbornly insisted on their own righteousness, but failing to deliver what the Law most strongly recommended – compassion, forgiveness, love of neighbor, justice.
We do this best not by trying to be something else than we are, but by humbly asking God each day for the grace to become more fully the persons he has created us to be. When we are in touch with this, when we can name it and claim it, it becomes easier to know – sometimes after a discernment process, but often enough from a well-developed intuition – what it is we can and should say YES to, and what it is we should politely but firmly decline so that someone else better suited can offer their gift there. When this happens, the Lord’s vineyard will indeed bear fruit that is both excellent and abundant, drawing on the labors of all God’s children – not just a few overworked, wired-and-tired individuals.
In the second reading today, Paul reminds us of the fundamental attitude we are to adopt in these situations, giving the example of Jesus to show us what saying YES to God means: love, compassion, sympathy, humility, encouragement – or in other words, “putting on the mind of Christ.”
“Be of the same mind, having the same love, humbly regarding others as better as yourselves, looking to each other’s interests. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … ”
Christ shows us the pattern. Christ’s entire life was an unconditional YES to his Father’s plan. He willingly surrendered his sense of “superiority”, accepted to be counted among sinners and outcasts, even unto death on a Cross. Jesus’ YES to the Father’s plan leads in turn to the Father’s YES to Jesus: God raised him from the dead, and to this day, throughout the world, his name is exalted. And today, Jesus continues to call each of us to follow his path of self-giving, generous love for others.
It is hard for us to see the way on this road. Our YES is often a searching and hesitant one, bereft of the simple certainties fundamentalists would press upon us. We do not always know where this YES to God is going to take us. Yet at a deeper spiritual level, it is the only path: to say YES to God, YES to my own deepest self, YES to my personal vocation.
May this be our prayer too, as with Jesus, we say our YES to the Father’s invitation to do the work of God’s Kingdom.
Prayer for GenerosityDear Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to love and serve you as you deserve To give and not to count the cost To fight and not to heed the wounds To toil, and not to seek for rest To labour, and not to ask for any reward Save that of knowing that I do your most holy will. Amen.
Ignatius of Loyola