Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, A
September 22, 2002
Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-27; Mt 20:1-16
1) Sometimes Jesus’ parables really do hit home and show how the kingdom of God is so different than the way we would set it up. As God said to Isaiah in the first reading, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” Jesus in this Gospel parable tells us a story that, if we’re paying attention, we have to react to. We cannot listen to the parable unmoved. Jesus knows that. There are two reactions that one could have to the parable. We’ll talk about each and we’ll talk about the one Jesus wants us to have.
2) The first reaction is the one most people have to this parable. We identify immediately with those workers who were called at six o’clock in the morning, to work in the vineyard. After a 12 hour day, in the scorching heat, they come in to receive their pay. Even though they had agreed with the master of vineyard for the usual day’s pay, when they saw that those who had just worked an hour were receiving a full day’s pay, they had every hope to receive more as well. When they received just a single day’s pay, however, they were disappointed. It seems unjust. Those who had worked an hour were paid as much as those who had worked 12. Even a young child can recognize that this seems unjust.
3) What’s Jesus trying to tell us in this parable. Jesus is trying to tell us about the Kingdom of God, his kingdom, here in this world and especially in the next. He says “The kingdom of God is like the way this landowner in this parable. So, in other words, this parable is about salvation. The truth is that God, like the landowner, goes out continually to call people to salvation. Some enter into that salvation early, like children at baptism, or the Blessed Mother, or St. John. These are those who enter at 6 am. Others come later, those who convert on their deathbed, those like the good thief who change at the end. 5 pm in the parable is equivalent to our 11th hour. But to each person who dies in Christ, God gives heaven, no matter when they first entered. Each person receives not just a full day’s wage, but a full life’s wage.
4) Like those in the parable, sometimes people can get upset with this. Converts from Protestantism, or Judaism or Islam or atheism can sometimes get so much attention that a cradle Catholic can feel a little jealous. At other times, we can feel somewhat like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son when someone we knew, who spent much of an early life on booze, sex, rock-and-roll, come back into the Church. After a really good confession, it seems to us, they’re on exactly the same ground as we are, and we can become jealous that they had the time to have “fun” earlier while we were having to keep the commandments. While they were away, perhaps, we might have said to ourselves that they were risking their eternal salvation — and they were! — but we can occasionally be upset (if our motives aren’t pure!) that God gave them a second chance and now they’re just like we were.
5) But this masks the first of two great misunderstandings in the parable Jesus gives us today. We can look at those who were in the square until 5 pm and say, “Those lazy louches.” Oftentimes we can imagine them playing an ancient version of cards, hanging out, smoking ancient cigarettes, checking out the babes walking by, allowing others to do all the work. We can look at them and say, “Well-done, fellas. Brilliant. Do nothing for 11 hours, work for one, get the same pay as those who work 12.” But that is not what would have been going on with them. In the ancient world, most of the work was done by slaves. Now slaves, in one sense, had an advantage over day laborers. They would never starve. The family that owned them would always make sure they got fed, because in one sense, they were like members of the family. The only way they’d suffer is if the family itself was suffering. But the day-laborers, the hired hands, had no such security blanket. They had to get their work every day. Their own lives, the lives of their wives and kids, depended upon it totally. They were going to at 6 am hoping to be hired so that their family wouldn’t starve the next day. At 6, when they weren’t hired, they would have been worried. At nine, more worried. At 12 and 3, almost to the point of tears. They wouldn’t have been having fun. They would have been praying that somehow they find work. They would have been getting alive by worries. Those in the vineyard from 6, although they would have been working hard, at least had the security that they and their families would survive.
6) Similarly with salvation and following Christ. Sometimes those who don’t look at the faith well can say, “I wish I was like those people we know who come late in life to Jesus and to the Church, who did their own thing, who had plenty of women and men, booze, money, etc. all their lives and then find Jesus later. But the simple fact of that matter is, even though sometimes appearances deceive, these people are miserable. They’re lost. They’re just doing damage to themselves and others by their carefree existence. The prodigal son thought he’d be happy by getting half the inheritance of his father and spending it, as Jesus tells us, on loose women and partying. But he eventually came to his senses and recognized he was miserable, living like a pig among pigs. And he came back. We in the Church have the great privilege of receiving God in Holy Communion, God himself! We have a chance to have his own life inside of us. We have a chance to receive his overflowing mercy in the sacrament of confession. We have the privilege of being able to listen to him speak to us live in Sacred Scripture. His truth sets us free, ultimately to be able to learn how to love. While our dark sides, responding to the temptations of the devil, sometimes might want to give in to all of these evil temptations, our higher side, when we’re mature enough to recognize it, helps us to see that we’re much the better for following the Lord all of lives. We save ourselves and others so much hurt by keeping his Commandments of Love, by putting him first in our lives and in our families. And we have his assurance that if we walk in his ways, if we live lives of faith, hope and love, that we will receive a full life’s wage at the end. And if we teach those ways and inspire our loved ones to do the same, they’ll have an eternity to share that joyful recompense with us.
7) The second big misunderstanding of the parable comes next. And this is a whopper. There are basically two types of reaction to Jesus’s story. The first comes from those who sense an injustice, who think that they’re perhaps entitled to God’s generosity and something more than the johnny-come-lately’s in the faith. They’re the ones who are upset at the end. But there’s a second group of people who often don’t get much attention. It’s those who are called at 5 pm and receive a full day’s wage. Can you feel their gratitude at the landowner’s generosity? Probably during their one hour, they were wondering how basically 1/12 of a denarius would be able to put food on the table the following day. It was better than nothing, but not much better than nothing. Yet when they come to be paid, they receive the full day’s wage. They would have been so happy they could have cried. Now, here’s the whopper: This is the group of people Jesus wants us to relate to today! He wants us to realize that most of us are much more like this person called later in the day than those who have been working all day long. Why’s that? Because even though perhaps we might have been called by the landowner earlier in the day, we really have started to work in his vineyard. God wants WORKERS in his vineyard. Bishop O’Malley talked about this to his priests this past Holy Week during the Chrism Mass. God wants WORKERS for his vineyard, not just people in his vineyard. And we can ask ourselves how much work we’re really doing for him in his vineyard. Too often in the faith, we can compare ourselves to those who blow God off, who do nothing for Him, who live immoral lives, and say, “Well, I’m definitely better off than that person.” But imagine if someone like Mother Teresa were here, or St. Paul, or married saints like St. Elizabeth of Portugal. When we compare ourselves against them, would we be impressed with our efforts? The Lord wants to give us a full life’s wage, but we can’t think that Christianity is a cushy job with very little demands. Christ wants us to work hard, to work in his vineyard, in the greatest mission any of us will ever receive, the mission of the salvation of souls.
8 ) I’d like to take a couple of examples. Last month, more than once in the bulletin and at Mass, I made clear we had a real need for catechists to pass on the treasure of the faith to young people. Anybody know how many people came forward? Three. Two of them were recently confirmed young people, for which I was very grateful to them and to God, because teaching will really help them to discover God’s plans for them. But three people. Out of the 1500 people that come to Mass, three people responded. Would God be impressed by that? When we were asking for those to come forward to help out in the preparations for our parish spiritual renewal, with a few notable exceptions, most of the people who came forward were those 5% of our parishioners who do 95% of the heavy lifting. Jesus is here again today calling us to WORK in his vineyard. Not just to show up at his vineyard and sit down and convince ourselves that we’re working. But to work for him in the glorious work of living the faith and passing it on to others, in one way or another. Another parish here in the city that I know well, St. Stanislaus, has a stewardship commitment for their parishioners, which is to have every parishioner dedicate TWO HOURS a week to the work of the Lord. It works out to 100 hours a year. They never have a problem with workers at their feasts, because so many hands make light and fun work for all. They never have a problem with a shortage of catechists. Many of their parishioners volunteer to tutor the kids at the school 2 hours per week after school, to help those kids who are struggling. Many help out with the young people in various youth activities. Others help out in parish fundraisers. Others go door-to-door. Others volunteer to become members of the choir to help everybody pray. Others see something that should be done, get the help of fellow parishioners, and just start something. The bottom line is practically-speaking EVERYONE does SOMETHING to help build up God’s kingdom and they realize that in giving of themselves, they receive so much more back from the Lord, that it’s really the greatest choice they’ve ever made. That parish does so much more than any other parish in the city, even though, practically speaking, it’s one of the smallest parishes. This parish has at least as much faith as the folks across the city. But are we committed to work for the Lord as much as they are? This parable is an examination of conscience for us all. Jesus is calling you to work in his vineyard? How do you respond? This week your homework is to think about a concrete way in which you can dedicate yourselves to this work.
9) The group of those called at 5 pm in the parable were so grateful at the generosity of the Lord. God is so generous with us and he wants to have his generosity overflow. None of us knows at what hour of life we’re at. We don’t know if he’s calling us at 9 am, or 12, or 3, or 5 or even 5:59 pm. But if we say yes to him, and start to work in his vineyard, living and spreading the faith, we can be sure that he will be generous in paying us back for all eternity. This is the Good News that Jesus is telling us today. God calls us again. Please realize there’s so much work to do and he’s calling YOU to do it.