18 Sept, Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Seek the Lord while he may be found” is one side of today’s readings. The other facet of the coin is that God’s mercy is beyond measure, so that even those who come late to his vineyard will be welcomed by his infinite love. We all have some reason to identify with those workers of the eleventh hour, whom the master of the vineyard treats with such generosity. As Isaiah confidently predicted, God will never ignore the needs and prayers of those who are humble in heart.
Is 55:6-9. Isaiah recommends turning to the Lord in urgent prayer. God is almighty and high above, but he never ignores the prayer of the humble.
Phil 1:20-24,27. Paul’s central wish is to give glory to God. Although he wants to be with Christ in heaven, he is also happy to go on serving Christ in this world as long as God wills it.
Mt 20:1-16. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard shows how God welcomes everyone into his kingdom. Every worker in the Lord’s vineyard receives a reward according to God’s goodness.
– for the unemployed that they will be helped to rejoin the ranks of wage-earners, and enjoy the dignity of earning their own living.
– for employers that they may give priority to maintaining employment in their enterprises.
– for the government that they will use energy and imagination in creating employment for all our citizens.
– for a spirit of thanksgiving, that we have the health to work, and for the prospering of our efforts.
Workers in Vineyards (John O’Connell)
I liked the film “Babette’s Feast”. Babette had a special gift for making good food in the best restaurant in Paris. She was forced to leave Paris during the revolution. She went to Denmark. There she pleaded with two elderly ladies to give her refuge. They were very pious, daughters of an austere Lutheran pastor who believed that if something gave pleasure it must be sinful and to be avoided. Without revealing her background, she promised to cook for them. They accepted her.
17 years later she received a letter from Paris with 10,000 Francs she had won in a lottery. She made a request to the ladies. She would like to give them, their friends and the villagers a dinner. There was one condition. It would have to be a French style dinner. They agreed and preparations started. The best of foods, wines and spirits were brought all the way from Paris, every conceivable nicety, plus silver salvers all the way. The ladies and the villagers got worried about the extravagance. Tongues were made for praising God, not for tasting exotic foods. Then they held a meeting and decided to go to the feast to eat, but not to enjoy it, and make no comments about the food.
All arrived, tables were laid and served, the night warmed up, hearts softened, tongues loosened, old rows were resolved, people openly forgave each other. The night ended in the courtyard with all holding hands and singing together.
Finally the film showed Babette in the kitchen having served all night. She was telling the ladies of her joy. This was her greatest moment. The meal cost 10,000 Francs, exactly what it would cost in Paris in her old restaurant. That crazy extravagance is a taste of God.
This is not simply a story of a fine meal but a parable of grace: a gift that costs everything of the giver and nothing for the receiver. We do not earn God’s favour with our pieties and renunciations. It comes as it always does, free of charge, no strings attached, on the house.
We have the same message in today’s gospel: a crazy farmer who not only pays the same wage to the people who worked for one hour as he did to those who did a heavy day’s work in all the heat. And to make it worse, the late comers were paid first. The others were angry and so would you and I be. It seems so unfair.
Why did Jesus tell that story? He was not talking about a just wage or how to run a successful business. In fact he was talking about the God that he believed in. This is what God is like. The parable is about the super-abundant mercy of God which is held out to sinners whether they come late or early in the day.
The parable makes little sense from the point of view of strict justice. But which of us would want to be treated by God according to strict justice. Do we not stand more in need of his mercy? Shakespeare got it right: “Though justice be thy plea, consider this – that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy.” And we can do so with confidence.
The Dole Queue (Liam Swords)
I used to hear them every other day when I lived in Rome, loudhailers blaring out the slogans. The was almost as common in Rome as the scream of the police-sirens. My little room was on the fifth floor of a building overlooking the Forum. Protest marches would start from Piazza Republica, wind their way down via Cavour, and swing right into Piazza Venezia. By the time they reach where I stayed, they were in full formation and in full throat. It was difficult to distinguish one protest from another. They all seek better wages, better pensions, better conditions or shorter hours. They carry trade-union banners or red flags. Police march in front and behind and the riot-squad in full gear are discreetly stationed in side-streets along the route. They all seemed to pass off peacefully. What they achieved, apart from traffic-jams and the frustration of cornmuters, I have no idea. But protests are as much a part of the political system in any democracy as the ballot-box.
One thing has changed though, since trade unions started in the middle of the 19th century. Workers then were at the bottom of the heap, shamelessly exploited, grossly underpaid and legally unprotected. They were hired and fired at will by employers and until trade unions organised them into strong disciplined movements, they were their own worst enemies, under-selling each other in their fight for jobs. They have come a long way in a hundred and fifty years. They are now the privileged ones, with jobs and wages and pensions. Now there is another group at the bottom of the heap, the unemployed, which has grown dangerously large in recent years. They range across a wide spectrum of society, young and old, men and women, the educated and the uneducated. They include the young, newly arrived on the job-market and the middle aged made redundant. For them, life offers only the bleak prospect of a place in the dole-queue. They have no voice. They exercise no pressure. They have no trade union because they have no tade, no workers” union because they have no work.
Tackling the problem of unemployment has become the main preoccupation of governments, if for no other reason than the crippling costs of welfare payments. Their best efforts are hampered by the sectional interests of the salaried majority. Employers insist on profit: employees demand security. The driving mechanism of each is self-interest. Helping the unemployed threatens both. The gospel is fundamentally at odds with such a world. You cannot serve the God of all and the mammon of some.
What is needed is generosity on the scale shown by the master of the vineyard in today’s gospel. The parable presents a cameo of our society. First we have the employer, then the unions, and finally the dole-queue. A wage-settlement is agreed between employer and workers – one denarius a day. Work begins with stable industrial relations. But the dole-queue persists.
The good employer takes imaginative and generous measures to help the unemployed, cutting his profit margins to the bone. The unions complain. In our world, they would probably have called a lightening strike and let the remaining grapes rot. But it is not our world and as Isaiah puts it in the mouth of God: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways.” It would be foolish to suggest that the measures taken in this parable would solve our unemployment. But there is no doubt that it can only be solved by such generosity from all parties.
Living Spirituality (John Walsh)
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,” the first reading warns us, “my ways not your ways – it is the Lord who speaks.” God, in other words, is completely different from what human beings imagine. From the time of the ancient Greeks up to the beginning of the twentieth century, much effort, and at times zealous fervour, went into formulating proofs for the existence of God. But such proofs seem to have lost their appeal for our generation, which seems more concerned with what we mean, when we speak of God.
Although most of us believe that God created us, there are others who go so far as to declare that God is no more than something of our own creation. At one stage those who did not subscribe to the existence of a divine being claimed that belief in such a one merely made human beings shy away from work, while expecting God to do it for them. But many psychiatrists, have become concerned that a lack of spirituality in turn can lead to its own mental upsets. Because when pressures become too great, and demands are impossible to meet, it is not the presence of a divine friend but rather the absence of one that can drive people to despair. The hope, in this world, of attaining a complete understanding of the nature of God is something, not only that can end up in many a blind alley, but, ultimately, is truly impossible to reach. For the finite human mind is incapable of encompassing the infinite.
The English writer, C. S. Lewis, famous for his insights into Christianity, after his wife had died from cancer, compared our idea of God with a house of cards. If one has a skilful and steady hand it is possible to build a quite elaborate structure, a kind of oriental temple, with playing cards. But because our limited image of the divine can easily become an idol, God occasionally shakes the table on which the cards are built up, and the whole thing collapses. Indeed we might well go so far as to say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence. For Lewis, the death of his wife was a crushing experience, which caused his image of God to crumble. It was only after the lapse of time that he came to look on his experience as a grace from God, because his understanding of the divine had increased further. One can easily make the common mistake of trying to reduce God to one’s own level. St Thomas Aquinas, on his deathbed, begged that all his writings on the nature of God be destroyed, so convincedwas he of their limitations. His request was never carried out, but this warning by him to his followers remains. If you believe you can comprehend God it is quite certain he is not God that comes to your mind. God indeed is infinitely greater than any concept of him the human mind can form, even though it be endowed with the genius of a Thomas Aquinas.
We will have made considerable progress in our knowledge of God, St Augustine declared, when before we know who he is, we have first learned who he is not. God’s ways certainly are not our ways, as we see in today’s gospel parable. At first glance it seems to go contrary to our sense of justice. It is preceded by, and ends with the same sentence, “The last will be first and the first last.” And so it happens when the landowner comes to pay his workers. His bailiff, or steward, is told to start with those who worked only an hour, and give them one denarius each. So those who had worked a full day saw the latecomers receiving as much as had been agreed for them in the early morning. Had they themselves been paid first, they would have gone off without being aware of what the rest got.
Any modem trade unionist would be appalled if his employer dealt with his staff in that manner. And we have a certain sympathy for those who had borne the heat and burden of the day, and received just as much as those who worked for just one hour in the cool of the evening. How could the landowner, who of course stands for God in the parable, treat his dependents in such a shabby way. So it comes as a rude awakening to us to learn that the whole thrust of the parable is that nobody can bargain with God, or claim the right to a reward from God. What Jesus is here stating in a rather striking way is that God is not in the business of bargaining, that a life of eternal happiness hereafter is a sheer gift that comes from God’s generosity. In no way can it be earned. By way of response the important thing for me is my love for God and for my neighbour. But perhaps more important still is God’s love for me as I am, as well as for the members of the community of which I am part.
God of Surprises (John Craghan)
One may find it useful to focus on a God of surprises, i.e., one who sets aside our human expectations in a display of divine freedom. One may pause to mention some of those situations where these human expectations are in evidence. For example, we become chagrined when former sinners attain positions of eminence in our civil or religious communities. We observe the less talented people advance in their careers and we become upset. We witness catastrophe in our own lives and assume that things cannot be changed. In these and similar situations we have programmed God to act in our image. We have not allowed God to be God, specifically a giver of gifts in the absence of credentials and worthiness.
Second Isaiah challenged his audience to believe in such a God of surprises. He upraised this community by operating on purely human scales. He insisted that God’s ways and thoughts were not to be determined by Israel’s ways and thoughts. Ultimately he invited this weary audience to focus on the dimension of divine mystery and so make way for a God of surprises.
Matthew acknowledged the community leaders and the other exemplary Christians who had worked hard. But he also pointed out the eleventh-hour members of the community who did not possess the credibility of those others. He advised his audience to emphasise God’s capacity to give, not humankind’s tendency to restrict and control. He proposed a Jesus who transcended purely human parameters of reward. In the final analysis he presented Jesus in the image of his Father, viz., a giver of gifts.
One may choose to speak of this theology of surprises in at least two ways. First, there are those who have experienced enormous shocks in life that they can no longer entertain the possibility of hope and confidence. One may urge this audience to believe in the God of Second Isaiah and Matthew. This is a God who can transform chaos into cosmos. Second, there are those who have gifts, talents, and resources. One may exhort this audience to make belief in a God of surprises palpable by becoming agents of surprise for others. Our God of surprises becomes real because the human agents of surprises are real.
Finally the homilist may want to link this theology of surprises with Eucharist. In Eucharist we proclaim God’s transformation of tragedy and despair into life and hope. The gift-giving is manifest in the change from the suffering and dead Jesus to the risen Lord. By making this proclamation, we commit ourselves to effecting surprises for those who yearn for transformations in their lives.
An Open Mind (Jack McArdle)
A theme common to all three readings is that of changing one’s mind. Our capacity to change our minds leaves us open to hazard and to hope – hazard when we choose to “renounce our integrity and to commit sin, hope when we choose to renounce sin to become law-abiding and honest” (First Reading.)
The Gospel story shows us the nobility of a humble change of mind. The first son “thought the better of it.” He was open to change, to better thoughts. The second son was set and closed. The ability to change one’s mind is essential to all healthy relationships. A mind that is closed, whether from pride, stubbornness or stupidity, tends to destroy all relationships – e.g., when we refuse to admit a mistake, when we are unwilling to apologise and change our ways, when we persist in prejudice against a person or group, when we think we know it all.
The second reading, from Philippians, talks of a more specific and positive change of mind: “in your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus’, or as an older translation put it, “let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.” This is the direction in which we must be constantly changing our minds day by day.
Paul emphasises one aspect in particular of the mind of Christ – his humble openness and self-emptying in contrast to the conceited grasping and clinging of Adam: “he did not cling to (or grasp at) his equality with God (as Adam did in Eden) but emptied himself..”
Ever since Adam, we are all born clingers and graspers. Even the new-born babe has a tight grip, and as we get older the grip gets stronger. Clinging permeates all of life; we cling to people (possessiveness) ; we cling to things (greed) ; we cling to power and position (lust for power) ; we cling to opinions (pride.) At the root of our clinging lies fear and insecurity. The apparently strong person who clings aggressively to set ways or ideas is in reality full of fear. Notice your physical reactions to fright; you clench up and grasp at something or someone, as a frightened child clings to its mother.
In the Buddhist tradition, clinging is seen as the root of all suffering. When you are unhappy, it can be enlightening to pursue the question “What am I clinging to?” It might be an idea, a plan, an expectation, power, possessions, reputation, a place, a person, health, even life itself. All wise traditions recommend a light grasp of everything. Anxious clinging leads to misery. As soon as we begin to relax our tight grasp and let go, we begin to be free and happy. (“Letting go” is a useful modern equivalent for “emptying.”)
Jesus did not cling. He knew that reality could be trusted, because at the heart of reality is “Abba – dear Father,” and that underneath everything, even death, are the everlasting arms. So he did not cling even to life, “accepting death, death on a cross.” “Into your hands,. I commend my spirit.” May this mind be in us which was in Christ Jesus.
God’s Thoughts (Henry Wansbrough)
The basic thought of the Gospel reading is well expressed by the Isaiah passage: “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” Try as one will, it is impossible to find a way in which the payment of the workers in the vineyard could be said to be fair. The owner is generous to the last comers, but why is he not generous to the others as well? It is simply that there is no reckoning up deserts when man meets God.
In the time of Christ Judaism had reached a legalistic state, and the mentality was definitely prevalent that salvation could and must be earned. There was a host of commands which must be fulfilled, and men were divided into two classes, the righteous who were on the road to salvation by fulfilling the commands, and the unrighteous, outcasts despised by those who kept the law. It was this slot-machine conception of God that Jesus opposed by his emphasis on love, for in love there is no calculation of duties, rights and obligations; there is only an open-handed giving without counting the cost, and a grateful receiving. We can never say that we have earned our salvation, or anything from God, but can only stand suppliant before him. The latest workers in the vine-yard have not earned what the owner gives them, and the mistake of their envious colleagues is to think that they can deserve well of the owner.
The most devout Christians often secretly find it a little hard to stomach that someone who repents on his deathbed is admitted to the kingdom no less than those who have struggled and suffered all their lives for God’s cause. But this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. Not only does it presuppose the commercial attitude of reward and punishments from God, but also it neglects the nature of love. The sole relationship of the believer to God must be personal relationship of love, and as such it is its own reward, for it brings happiness also in this life. The greater the struggle and the suffering, the more a Christian turns to God and finds comfort – often the only comfort – in the security of his love and fidelity. But furthermore, fidelity through a long life does bring some advantage over a skimped final conversion, for it may well be – though this is perhaps not invariably so – that the relation-ship of love has so deepened over the years that the Christian, conformed over a long period to the image f Christ, has more capacity for the full enjoyment of God’s company than he who comes to know God only at the last moment. Here it is not a matter of God giving a greater reward, but man being more capable of receiving it.
Of this deep and rewarding relationship with God and with Christ Paul shows himself in the second reading to be the perfect example. Writing as he does under persecution he is yet filled with the joy of Christ. His life is already united with Christ’s life, and he longs for the fulfilment of final union.
First Reading: Isaiah 55:6-9
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundanly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Second Reading: Philippians 1:20-24, 27
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.
Now when the first came they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”