We used to call him Father Cream Puff, a term of endearment we coined for his gentle style and the puffy way he carried himself on campus. We never would have thought that Georgetown University in Washington DC would name its observatory after him. With Master’s and PhD degrees from Harvard University, Francis J Heyden SJ was an expert on the sun. Back in the 1970’s, when he wasn’t looking into the sun, Fr Frank was teaching astronomy to the undergrads of the Ateneo de Manila.
In his classes, this jolly old Jesuit astronomer was also known to sprinkle A’s all over the place. So you can just imagine how his undergrad classes were always filled to the rafters.
To the physics majors, he taught optics and radiation. The paper I wrote for that class was something on gravitational lenses. He must have given us all A’s for our papers, as was his wont, and I wonder now if that kind of liberality ever bothered me at all. I mean, given the grade inflation or the cheapness of an A, it was always tempting to be mercenary about these things. Did I really have to bother writing about quasar light bending around galaxies when something lighter, such as the color and size of sunsets, might have yielded an A that was just as sweet?
Perhaps something like this is happening in the parable today about the eleventh hour laborers who get paid the same wages as those who had been toiling the entire day. They all get A’s in the end. Where’s the fairness in that?
If that were Heyden’s class, that would have been like giving A’s unilaterally to those morning guys who’d been working on the origins of the universe since dawn, and to the latecomers who only had to measure the size of the setting sun, perhaps with scotch in one hand. Again,where’s the fairness in that?
And guess what, the Lord says the kingdom of heaven is just like that. It is like good ol’ Frank Heyden, liberal dispenser of A’s.
Only in this case, the A’s have nothing to do with your mastery of the constellations, your punctuality or industry or even IQ. The A’s are not grades for stellar performance. The wages are not reward for time and services rendered.
If there is anything that is liberally dispensed in this story, it is mercy and love and all the stuff that cannot be commoditized as discrete bundles in a quid pro quo transaction. The A you get is an A in mercy and love, from God who is himself mercy and love. The good news here is that there are no gradations when it comes to mercy and love. The A you receive is an A in all the things that God is, that heaven is, an A for ever-patient and boundless redemption. Ultimately, the A that is given you is the very person of our Lord himself, all-in, without nuance or hesitation.
Seen through this lens, the story reveals to us the subtle unity of giver and gift, the abundance of pure and simple grace, and the sheer gratuitousness of life and everything that surrounds us.
In class, when a teacher gives you a grade, it is your grade. In Heyden’s class on heavenly bodies, as it is perhaps in heaven, when God gives you a grade, it is his grade and not yours really. And the grade that he gives is more a reflection of who he is than it is of what you’ve done.
That is how we make sense of the liberality of the giver. We are given A’s not in proportion to what we deserve but according to who he is and the depth of his love and mercy.
If we are true to ourselves, we can never ace mercy and love and boundless redemption. We are always found wanting when it comes to God and the things of heaven.
What you do with the A that is given you is up to you. You can post that on your wall for everyone to see or like or comment on. Or with gratitude spilling over, you can try handing out A’s to all those who need your love and mercy, not in proportion to what they have done or failed to do, but only because of who you are and what you have become in the light of his love and mercy.
If only we could believe and practice what has been offered us: love and mercy overflowing, redemption without measure or hesitation, I bet it wouldn’t take until sunset for heaven to be filled to the rafters.
[by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ]
About Jett Villarin, SJ
Fr. Jett is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who is the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.