Sunday, September 21, 2014
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 20:1-16 (New American Bible, Revised Edition)
1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.2After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,4 and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’5So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise.6Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’7They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’8 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.’9When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.10So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.11And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner,12saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’13He 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?14 Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?15[Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’16 Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways – oracle of the LORD.” This text from Isaiah 55:8 gives us the key to read and grasp in its fullness the content of today’s liturgy. We could go even further: it underlines one of the basic mistakes in our imagining of God, the trend to project onto him our feelings and ideas, our understanding of life and the world. That basic difference between God’s thoughts and ours is what so often leads to our disappointment with the ways in which history evolves and salvation is made present among us. The parable we read today, as usual, must be set in its context: that of Matthew chapters 19 – 22. In our Sunday readings this year, we have missed chapter 19 entirely, so we have a long and meaningful gap to bridge. Matthew 19 is the beginning of a new section. “When Jesus finished these words, he left Galilee….” He is on his way to Jerusalem, to his passion, death and resurrection. And it is the right time to speak to the disciples and anticipate, through a series of subjects which Jesus approaches from a new, personal standpoint, the different understanding of life that they must learn. Only from that perspective will they be able to grasp the meaning of the Kingdom and of the events they will very soon witness in Jerusalem. The subjects are divorce and celibacy, the importance of children, observing the Law and the renouncing of riches. In all cases, Jesus will transmit the same basic message: in the Kingdom there is a different set of values and a need to evaluate things according to other standards. A simple sentence could sum up that conception: “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). We have to recall here the birth of the Messiah in a stable and not in a palace; how he was considered a transgressor of the Law; how he announced his terrible suffering and death (once again in 19:17-19); how his disciples should renounce riches (a sign of blessings from heaven); and how he urged the law-abiding rich man to sell everything to obtain eternal life. In this context, our parable is a shocking example of “last and first.” After hiring a number of laborers to work in his vineyard “for the usual daily wage,” at the end of the day they all get the same pay, irrespective of the hours they had worked. As anyone would expect, the reaction was grumbling and complaining from those who had borne “the day’s burden and the heat.” Of course, the parable is not an example of distributive justice, but underlines instead the gratuity of God’s salvation. It is not because of our merits or sanctity that we are granted the gifts we receive from him, but out of his generosity that we have received the Messiah, reconciliation, and the gift of eternal life. In the parable, no laborer is treated unfairly. Those hired in morning get what they had been promised, the usual daily wage, so they cannot speak about exploitation. Should they blame the landowner for being generous and giving the latecomers the same pay? In the end, the parable is but a sign of the feelings that Jesus’ attitude towards public sinners, tax-collectors, Samaritans (among others), provoked in those who considered themselves “first,” the Pharisees, teachers of the Law, pious Jews, Law-abiding believers, all who trusted in their hard religious work rather than in God’s grace.
The parable, as I said in the previous lines, could be applied to the group of “official believers” who could not accept that the “last” could be called to share in God’s plans of salvation, exclusively destined for Israel. It could also be applied to the “first” Christians who came from the Jewish community and felt superior to the Gentiles, late comers to the faith. But, of course, it can also be understood as addressed to all of us who consider ourselves superior for whatever reason to newly converted Christians who do not have our religious roots, who are not veterans of the faith. But there is something even deeper in our feelings. To what extent do we consider that following the Law (in our case, the commandment of love), is a heavy burden to carry on our shoulders? Why that puerile trend to compare our actions with those of others, our rewards with those others receive? Why that blind desire to impose on others the burdens that we ourselves are not able to carry? Read again Acts 15:6-11 and you will be able to elicit a good number of questions concerning our attitude about grace.
Pray for the Christian community you belong to: that it may become a sign of God’s mercy and generosity towards those who are “last” in our society, the poor, people in the Third World, those with physical or psychological disabilities, “public sinners,” “grey” unimportant people who go unnoticed. Let us pray for ourselves: that we may discover the distance between God’s thoughts and our own thoughts, that we may let the Lord of mercies shape our mentality to his own and learn to judge reality by his standards.
Read again Ephesians 2:4-13, but pay special attention to this sentence: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God” (2:8). That is the mystery of our salvation: God coming down to us, God sharing in Christ our human nature, God giving us the gift of himself. It is precisely what we celebrated last week, the exaltation of the Cross. A simple suggestion for this week: even if it may seem naïve, write down a list of the most important gifts you have received from God. Do not think about “grand events,” but of the simple, small presents you discover in your daily life. Humbly, say “Thanks.”
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón, Roman Catholic priest, Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain
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