Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
September 18, 2005
Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-24, 27; Mt 20:1-16
1) 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 parable and then its application of to the kingdom of God which Jesus used it to describe.
2) 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. We think work is a curse and not having to work a great blessing; this, even though God gave man the vocation to work, to “subdue the earth” and have “dominion” over all animals BEFORE the Fall (Gen 1:28 ). 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, much as men in our country did during the Great Depression. If they were not picked at dawn, they would start to get nervous. If they were not picked later, at 9, they probably would have been concerned about what their wife would say at home. If they were not selected at noon, they probably would have started to wonder what objects she might throw at them! If they were not hired by three, they probably would have begun seriously to worry that their family, and especially their children, might go to bed starving. It’s not like they would have been playing poker and drinking in the market place all day. Most of them would easily have traded in 11 hours of work in the fields for the eleven hours of anxiety waiting in the square.
3) Now to the first application of the parable. Jesus was using this parable to preach to the Jews about salvation. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had already been God’s chosen people since the time 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 incredible 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 Matthew or Zacchaeus. Most shocking to their phylactery-covered ears was Jesus’ assertion that the Gentiles, too, 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 embraced the Gospel, 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 1300 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, was making them jealous.
4) But Jesus was also exposing a serious flaw in the way they looked at the moral life. 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. 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. That’s because we 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. But if we truly treasure God, then we’ll recognize that we’ve been blessed all along more than those who were enslaved to various idols through their sins. A repentant sinner clearly recognizes this: that’s one of the reasons why he converts!
5) 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 who 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.
6) But there’s a second lesson from the parable which is at least as important. Many of us “cradle Catholics” 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.
7) I remember Bishop O’Malley, in his last Chrism Mass homily to priests before the Holy Father transferred him, preached 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 imagine for a minute if St. Paul were here, or Blessed Mother Teresa, or Pope John Paul II, who even at 84 was continuing to work seventeen-hour days. If we described to them what we’re doing for the kingdom, do you think they would be impressed? We don’t have to do as much as they did in order to be a good worker for the Lord, but we have to ask ourselves honestly what work we’re really doing, in our response of faith to God, to build up his kingdom. I’d like to present three examples, as a practical index for us to gauge our response:
a. For the past few weeks, I’ve been begging for people to step forward as catechists. Out of the 1500 or so people at Mass each week, do you know how many have volunteered for this deeply important work of transmitting the faith? … Fifteen. While I’m deeply grateful for those who have stepped forward and am thrilled about their quality, let me ask you: Do you honestly think that God is pleased by a ONE-PERCENT response?
b. Another example. Ever since I got here, I’ve been asking people to step forward to help to take the collection during Mass — which is not particularly tough work — but it’s been a rare occurrence that at a given Mass more than two or three people have volunteered to help. Rather than asking the question, “Why haven’t people gotten up to do this?,” I’d prefer to ask, more directly, “Why haven’t you gotten up to volunteer?”
c. A third example. At least five times, at the suggestion of the parish buildings committee, I’ve run in the bulletin a request for those with particular skills as artisans to submit their names in case a particular project might come up on the property needing their expertise. Do you know how many have responded? … Ninguém. Nadie. Nessuno. Absolutely no one.
8 ) I know that these are just three examples, but the question I would like to ask everyone to ask in conscience before God is whether we have any “calluses” to show from our work in the vineyard. Or have we thought that the work that needs to be done will get done by someone else? At Sacred Heart Chapel in Yarmouthport, which is one of the two places I served immediately before coming here to St. Anthony’s, someone once put up a photocopy of a paragraph on volunteering that I’ll never forget. I’ve printed it in the bulletin this week, but it’s worth a mention now: “Once upon a time, 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.”
9) That brings me to the action item. Three weeks ago, members of our parish finance committee spoke at the beginning of the Masses about the fiscal state of the parish and asked all parishioners who work to dedicate their first hour of week to God, and to put into the basket whatever they earn for one hour’s work. Today I’d like to ask you something in addition to that. I would like you to commit to dedicating one hour per week of your time as a volunteer, working to build up the kingdom of God here at this parish. I’m not requesting that every week you necessarily work an hour, but over the course of a year, that you commit to volunteering 52 hours for the parish. There are many ways you could spend the time. You could help out with our parish food pantry, which is doing so much good for the needy in our surroundings. You could join our Legion of Mary and help them in the task of evangelization. Our parish youth group could always use additional competent chaperones. We could use your help in any of the fundraising events of our parish — from Bingo to the Bazaar to the Feast to the Thirty-Week Club or more. If you look on our parish website, or read the booklet prepared by our Spiritual Life Committee, you’ll find numerous activities that already exist through which you could help God build what he wants to build here. But there are plenty of other things, too. I’d love to restart our parish St. Vincent de Paul Society. I’d love to begin a parish bereavement team to give the support to those who have just lost a loved one. One very simple thing I would like to do is to have retired parishioners volunteer to spend one hour a week in the Church, so that we can keep the doors open at least a few hours a day for the pilgrims who want to come by to pray inside this most beautiful temple. Whether it be something old, or something new that you think of and propose to me, I’m asking that you make the commitment to dedicate one hour a week on average to working hard in the Lord’s vineyard trying to bring in his harvest.
10) A little over one-hundred years ago, a 34-year old priest, Père Hormisdas Deslauriers, was named pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish. He walked through the city of New Bedford and looked at all of the Churches then extant and came to the parishioners here and said, “None of these is beautiful enough for God.” He got them to share his vision and, even though they were poor, together they built this magnificent Church which is simply the most beautiful parish Church in New England. Today the Lord has sent another priest in his mid-30s to be your pastor, and he says that this community, made out of living stones, is not yet beautiful enough for God. He’s hoping that you will share that vision and join with him, so that, together, the Lord may make this parish the most vibrant in the whole diocese. God can bring about that result, if each of us makes the commitment to roll up our sleeves and get down to work in his vineyard.
11) Today the Lord Jesus turns to each of us, looks us straight in the eye, and says, “It’s five o’clock.… But there’s still time. … You, too, go to work in my vineyard!”