The prophet Ezekiel says as much in today's first reading. "When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die." In other words, just because you are doing pretty good right now, don't get overconfident. St. Paul warns against presumption*, "I work out my salvation in fear and trembling, lest after having preached to others, I myself be lost." Those are sobering words; they make us recognize we have to rely constantly on God's grace.
However, if it is possible to forfeit everything at the very last, the opposite is also true. Ezekiel says, "But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life." As a priest I have seen many end of life conversions. It is one of the most beautiful things about being a priest. A family was once gathered around the bed of their dying father. All his life he had mocked the faith. His wife endured it years and prayed quietly for her husband. As he was slipping away, she placed a small crucifix in his hand. To the astonishment of the family he grasped it and lifted it to his lips. Touching that crucifix to his lips was his last conscious act.
Now to some people this can seem unfair. How can a person ignore God and be saved by a deathbed conversion while someone else does good all his life, then loses everything by commiting a serious sin? But God turns the question around, "Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?" We can be sure of one thing: God is completely just and fair. But he never allows us to peer into another man's heart. We can only see our own. Some worry about the people who have never heard about Christ. How are they saved? That is a legitimate question; our Catechism addresses it. (#1260, see also #161ff.) But worrying about other people can be a way of avoiding a much more important and immediate question: what about you? You and I do know about Jesus and our salvation will depend on how we respond to him.
Regarding salvation Jesus tells us today about two sons. The first was told to get into the vineyard and work. He said, "no," but later changed his mind. The second said, "yes," but then never went. Jesus asks a simple question, "Which one did his father's will?" Which one will be saved? You can hear Jesus' listeners swallow hard, "The first." The one who got into the vineyard.
The point is almost identical to last Sunday - the parable of the workers in the vineyard. What counts is not necessarily all the good work you've done, but where you are at the end of the day. Those who came at the last hour get the same pay as those who worked all day. God does not operate on the "equal pay for equal work" principle. As Father Armando had us all say last Sunday, "God is generous." He is also fair, but in a deeper way than our ordinary standard of justice.
So what is the moral of this story? I am afraid for many people it is, "Enjoy now, repent later." I'll stop swearing and drinking, but not now. I'll start getting serious about praying and going to Mass - when I'm older. Surely God won't send me to hell just because I do a little messing around. That way of thinking is fatal. When a person makes a deathbed conversion, I am convinced it was not only an act of God's grace, but there was something which all along prepared the person. The same with the apparently good man who trips at the end. Remember the saying, "As you live, so shall you die." When that moment arrives, what will count is not your good intentions, "I was planning on repenting, but when I turned seventy." God is not interested in a lot of lovely promises. He wants action. Are you in the vineyard or not? Sure, the Church has a lot of imperfections. It's composed of imperfect people, like you and me. But what will endure forever is Jesus and his bride the Church. When our time comes, may we be found working in the vineyard.
*There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God's almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit). Catechism # 2092.
Salvation of Non-Catholics
From Archives (for Twenty-sixth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
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Fr. Brad's Homilies (well worth listening)
Letter to Parents
About Parish Finances
Everett 40 Days for Life
Parish Picture Album
(World Youth Day 2011)
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru