Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
September 21, 2014
Is 55:6-9, Ps 145, Phil 1:20-24.27, Mt 20:1-16
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
The Blessing of Work and of Working for God
Through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord tells us in today’s first reading, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways.” Each of us can see the validity of this truth by the typical reaction we have to the parable Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel. Without the prodding of any labor union, we’re prone to agree with the beef of those who worked a grueling 12-hour day but who didn’t receive a penny more than those who worked only one hour. In order to have our thoughts become more like God’s thoughts and our ways resemble His ways, however, we first must understand the context of the parable, get to the root of why on various levels it offends us, and then examine what it’s teaching us about God, ourselves, and the kingdom he wants us to enter and help him build.
Let’s first understand the parable. When we compare the men who worked twelve hours and those who worked for one, we think that the latter group had it better, especially since they all received the same pay. But this manifests our jaundiced view of human work, which influences our reaction to Jesus’ story. Most of us have come to think about work as a curse rather than a great blessing, even though we know that God gave us the vocation to work — to “subdue the earth” and have “dominion” over all animals — before the Fall (Gen 1:28). Work is a part of our vocation, how God has us grow and develop. As we do honest work, we not only make something, but we make ourselves, we build our character, through the qualities we bring to our work. Moreover, if we understand the way work happened in the ancient world, we see that work really was a blessing. Men used to go to the market place in the morning hoping to be hired as day workers. They did all they could to be chosen, arriving with all their tools, running up to meet those who were hiring, selling themselves as hard-workers, much as men in our country did during the Great Depression. They and their families were living on the semi-starvation line. To be unemployed for a day was to court disaster. If they were not picked at dawn, they would be filled with anxiety. If they were not picked later, at 9, they would have been concerned about letting their wife and children down. If they were not selected by noon, they would have begun to wonder what objects and epithets their loved ones might throw at them on return! If they were not hired by three, they would have begun seriously to worry that their family, and especially their children, might go to bed ravenously hungry and malnourished. It’s not like those who were not hired would have been playing cards and drinking in the market place all day. Most of them would have been dying of apprehension They easily have traded in 11 hours of work in the fields for the eleven hours of anxiety waiting in the square.
These considerations bring us to the first application of the parable. Jesus was using this story to preach to the Jews about salvation. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had already been God’s chosen people since the age of Abraham, about 1800 years prior. For thirteen hundred years, they had been committed to keeping a covenant with God based on the faithful fulfillment of the Mosaic law. All of a sudden a carpenter from Nazareth, who was working all types of miraculous signs to back up the authority of his potent preaching, was saying that others were going to get the same “life’s wage” that they were. He said that the prostitutes, if they repented and accepted his Gospel, were going to receive the full pay of salvation. He said that tax collectors, hated by observant Jews for their complicity with the Romans, would receive the same if they accepted the Gospel like Zacchaeus of Matthew (whose feast the Church celebrates today). Most shocking to their phylactery-covered ears was Jesus’ assertion that even the Gentiles would be saved. It just didn’t seem fair to them. Even though Jesus was stressing that his Jewish listeners, too, could be saved if they accepted the fulfillment of all God had been doing among them and embraced the Gospel he was proclaiming and enfleshing, many of his listeners were convinced the “system” was unjust. After all, weren’t those who had kept the Mosaic Law with such exactitude and rigor for thirteen hundred years entitled to something special? Did not they who had borne the greater “burdens” and “scorching heat” of the moral law have a right to something more than the Johnny-come-latelies — who up until that time had never kept the covenant or, in the case of the Gentiles, hadn’t even heard of it? The Lord’s generosity in freely offering salvation to others, like he would to the Good Thief on the Cross, was making them jealous.
Through this parable, Jesus was exposing a serious flaw in the way they looked at the Covenant with God and with the religious life in general. Just like sometimes we can view work as a burden rather than a blessing, so they looked at their keeping of the covenantal precepts more as a yoke than a grace. They failed to see that they had already received more than the others were being offered because of the great gift of having been able to walk in the Lord’s ways up until then. We Christians can often be guilty of the same flaw. We can be secretly jealous of those who have lived a wild and sinful life, but who, because of God’s mercy, converted before it was too late. We can behave like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who resents that the Father treats our profligate brothers and sisters with the same love with which he has treated us who have never disobeyed his commands in the same flagrant way. We can resent, as those who had worked all day did, that the Master is making others “equal to us” who have shouldered the weight of fidelity to the law all along. But this envy happens because our vision has become distorted. The expression the Master in the Parable says today, “Are you envious because I am generous?,” is a loose translation of the Greek St. Matthew employs, which says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The generosity of another, especially of God, makes us angry because we think that if we are to win, others must be left behind, that we can’t be happy and enjoy the fruits of our work unless others, especially the lazy bums who haven’t made the same choices we have, are unhappy. Our eye becomes evil when we’re confronted by others’ goodness. There’s also another way our eye starts to see evil that we need to confront. One of the reasons why we, like Jesus’ Jewish listeners, are prone to anger by the Lord’s merciful generosity is because sometimes value sins more than we value the love of God and of others (which the commandments help us to achieve). If we value sins more, then we will be jealous of those like the Good Thief who “get in” at the last moment. If we truly treasure God, however, then we’ll recognize that we’ve been blessed all along more than those who were enslaved to various idols through their sins. Repentant sinners clearly recognize this: that’s one of the reasons why they convert!
So the first lesson that the Lord wants us to take from this parable is that he continues to call others into his vineyard to join those whom he called earlier. If we hope our thoughts to become more like his thoughts and our ways his ways, then we must rejoice when others are hired for the work of the kingdom. Moreover, if our thoughts and ways resemble His, then we must strive to work, with Jesus, to let everyone know that there are still job openings in the fields.
Rolling Up Our Sleeves and Responding to the Summons
But there’s a second lesson from the parable that is at least as important. When many of us “cradle Catholics” hear this parable, we initially seem to relate to those hired at 6 am in the story, because we think we’ve been in the vineyard from the day of our baptism. But the Lord wants us — or at least most of us — to recognize that it’s more likely that we’re still in the market place! We haven’t yet begun to work.
I remember Cardinal Sean O’Malley, in his last Chrism Mass homily as Bishop of Fall River before the Holy Father transferred him to Florida and then to Boston, preached to the priests of our Diocese about the Lord’s instruction to “pray to the Harvest Master to send laborers into his harvest” (Mt 9:38). He stressed that Jesus did not ask us to pray that the Father send merely bodies into his vineyard, or dead weight into his fields, but laborers, hard workers, those who knew how to work up a sweat. What Bishop Sean was candidly admitting was that many priests are, in fact, lazy. The Lord wants his priests, on the other hand, to be diligent and to work for the salvation of souls with the same zeal that a greedy businessman would work to increase his profits.
What’s valid for priests is valid for all of us. We can sometimes think we’re carrying our weight by the simple fact we come to Mass, put something in the basket, say our prayers and avoid mortal sins. Or we think we’re doing heavy-lifting by the fact that we can easily point to many people who are barely lifting a finger; compared to them, we look industrious. But God wants us to each of us to become a real laborer, true hard worker, in and for his kingdom.
In the parable, we see how the Master, representing God, exhausts himself even in comparison to the workers who were hired first thing in the morning. Despite the fact that he had a foreman whom he could have sent to do the hiring, the Master himself goes out to hire at 6, 9, 12, 3 and 5. He was even willing to lose money to hire people at the end of the day, not only because he cared about taking in the harvest — which represents the ever urgent harvest of souls — but because he didn’t want anyone excluded from the work of and in his kingdom. His question to those hired at 5 pm, “Why do you stand here idle all day?,” shows his passion that everyone come to his vineyard to work; after all, he had already come out four times that day to hire everyone who was present. Their response, “Because no one has hired us!,” shows in a sense how much inactivity had led to a self-pity that had made unresponsive and irresponsible. Did they not realize that the Master of the Vineyard was hiring everyone? Even if they were in the “bathroom” the first four times he was hiring, did they not grasp that everyone was being summoned to work in the fields? Many times we can say that the reason why we have never gotten involved is, “No one asked me.” With regard to the harvest, God never wants us to say that. He wants us to grasp that he is hiring all of us, that there’s room in the vineyard for everyone willing to work. He is counting on all our help. And he’s passionately and continuously coming out in search of all of us to summon us to labor with him for the salvation of the human race. The essential lesson of the parable is that to be in the Kingdom of God means to be working together with God and together with others, some who have entered the fields before us and some who have come after us. But there’s much work to do and God wants each of us doing much work. We see in the Parable that remaining idle on the sidelines when God’s hiring us all to do his work is not merely the worst of missed opportunities but a lack of the life God of the Kingdom God wants us to share. He wants us not only objectively to share in the work of the harvest, but he wants to form the harvesters, because our life, like that of the day laborers in the marketplace, is purposeless unless we grasp that we’re hired and get down to work. Our failure to recognize and to respond to his call deprives us of this great good.
But we have to get involved. We have to step forward. We need to grasp that God is calling us to work, rather than pretend as if he hasn’t called us hundreds of times already through the Sacraments we’ve received, through the words of the popes, bishops, priests, catechists, parents and so many other people he’s sent us inviting us to labor with them for God.
I remember a dozen years ago when I was a priest on Cape Cod, I was celebrating Mass at the beautiful and tiny Sacred Heart Chapel in Yarmouthport. Someone anonymously put up on one of the bulletin boards a paragraph on getting involved in in the work of the Church that I’ve never forgotten. I took the sheet down, made a photocopy of it, put it back up and then mentioned it at the Masses later that day. It’s very relevant to today’s Gospel when Jesus is calling each of us, whether we’re at the dawn or the noon or the sunset of life, whether we’re been serving him and his Church for decades or whether we haven’t yet begun to grasp that he calls us not to be a spectator in the Church or merely a recipient of his saving work and the hard work of others but to be a participant in growing bring in a great harvest of souls. “Once upon a time,” the sheet on the bulletin board began, “there were four people named Everybody, Somebody, Nobody and Anybody. When there was an important job, Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did. Everybody got angry because it was Somebody’s job. Everybody thought Somebody would do it, but Nobody realized that nobody would do it. So it ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done in the first place.”
Jesus, in today’s parable, is calling us to live by totally different standards. He’s calling each of us to become someone who doesn’t look to others to do the work but someone who gets involved, who goes into the fields with enthusiasm, whose diligence others emulate. Today Jesus is look at each of us straight in the eye and saying, “You, too, go to work in my vineyard!”
Life is for Fruitful Labor
Someone who got this message was St. Paul. After Jesus appeared to him on the Road to Damascus, he spent much of the rest of his life crisscrossing the ancient world founding or strengthening Churches in modern day Syria, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, Cypress, Malta and Italy. He was scourged, imprisoned and shipwrecked various time on account his work in the Vineyard. He used to support himself doing the arduous work at night of making tents by hand so that no one would think he was leeching off of them. And he continued to work hard even whenhis arms were chained to walls, writing letters to people whom he could not visit and catechizing those who came to see him. In today’s second reading, he describes the principle that should motivate every real Christian. “For me to live is Christ,” he said, and “If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.” As long as we’re alive, in other words, we should be engaged in fruitful labor, planting seeds for the Lord, reaping the seeds others have planted before us, and seeking to make Christ, his kingdom, and his harvest, the real driving force of our life. Jesus longs for the day when everyone of us can truthfully echo those words of St. Paul and, in our own part of the vineyard, work with the same energy and fruitfulness with which St. Paul labored to till the soil in seven different countries. He prayed at the end of the second reading that we would “conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ,” and hard work to establish God’s kingdom in the hearts of others and to align the values of society with those of God are essential and indispensable parts of that worthy Christian conduct.
God’s Generous Payment
Today, the Lord is saying to each of us, “You’re hired!” If we respond to the blessing of that calling, if we roll up our sleeves, and help him spread and strengthen the faith, then he will give us each not just a denarius, not just a full day’s wage, but the abounding generous reward of eternal life. We don’t have to wait that long to see that generosity, however. This morning, before we engage in seeking to do his work through this upcoming week, he already gives us something far greater than a salary of a billion dollars. The reward he gives is the greatest expression of his generosity he could. He gives himself! As we prepare to receive him today, we thank him for never stopping to come to meet us in the marketplace to remind us of the work to which he’s calling us; we beg him to strengthen us on the inside to respond wholeheartedly to that summons; and we ask him for the grace that like St. Paul we may see that truly to live is to live in Christ, to share his hard work for the salvation of the human race, so that we may share his grown in bringing in a great harvest of souls to rejoice with him and with us forever. There’s much work to do and out of love for others and for us God is sending us to do it. Let’s get started!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.
ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Every day will I bless you,
and I will praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
R/ The Lord is near to all who call upon him.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
R/ The Lord is near to all who call upon him.
The LORD is just in all his ways
and holy in all his works.
The LORD is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.
R/ The Lord is near to all who call upon him.
phil 1:20c-24, 27a
Brothers and sisters:
Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
If I go on living in the flesh,
that means fruitful labor for me.
And I do not know which I shall choose.
I am caught between the two.
I long to depart this life and be with Christ,
for that is far better.
Yet that I remain in the flesh
is more necessary for your benefit.
Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o’clock,
the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.’
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o’clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o’clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and ending with the first.’
When those who had started about five o’clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
‘These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
He said to one of them in reply,
‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”