TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – SEPTEMBER 18, 2011

Isaiah 55:6-9

Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a

Matthew 20:1-16a

God, as encountered in Hebrew Scriptures, is often characterized as an angry, vengeful God.  Granted, there are some passages that might support that interpretation.  God does punish the Israelites for their infidelities.  God certainly rains down havoc on the pursuing Egyptians, smiting them to the last one.  Until Moses intervenes, God wants to be rid of the troublesome people God has lead out of slavery and into the desert of freedom.  Harsh, yes, but that is only part of the picture.

Isaiah reveals the other side of God, the God who is generous and forgiving.  Seek the Lord while he may be found.  Call on him while he is near.  Isaiah proclaims the message to the wicked and the scoundrel, in other words, to those most might judge to be outside the pale of God’s mercy.  By no means, Isaiah says.  God does not think or judge the way people do.  God is about forgiveness and mercy, a God who wants to be the people’s God and wants to be in relationship with the people.  I will be your God and you will be my people, God says.  All the scoundrel and the wicked have to do is change their ways and turn back to God.  Isaiah says that the people shouldn’t try to understand how and why God acts the way God does.  People don’t ordinarily think in this way.  But God does.  And we might be able to say that it is all about grace, an outpouring of God’s love.

The operative word in Isaiah’s passage is seek.  The scoundrel and the wicked still have time to seek God.  Isaiah urges them to act without delay because time can run out, after all.  Today’s gospel puts a bit of a different slant on the issue.  Jesus tells us a familiar parable about a landowner hiring field workers at various times of the day, from early morning to late afternoon, promising the first hired the usual daily wage.  He promises to pay those hired later the uncertain and indefinite what is just.  This promise is extended to those hired at 5 o’clock for the last hour of the workday.

You remember how the parable goes.  Those hired last are paid first and are given a full day’s wage.  So are those who were hired at the various other hours during the workday.  Each is paid a full day’s wage.  Those that were hired first watch all this and conclude that when their turn comes they will be paid even more than the wage to which they had agreed.  Who can blame them?  After all, it had been a long day of labor in the intense heat of the summer day.  They are outraged when they are paid the wage to which they had agreed.

This parable ought not be used as a model for fair practice in the marketplace.  That is not what it is about.  The key words are in the landowner’s redress to the resentful laborers: I am generous.

Did you ever ask yourself how you would have felt had you been one of those first hired?  What assumptions would you have made as you watched those others hired late in the day being paid the full day’s wage?  Would you have concluded the same, as did those daylong workers in the parable?  Of course, it’s only human after all.

How do your thoughts change if here we are considering salvation?  Do some still think that faithful service earns salvation?  The landowner’s directive denies that.  Salvation is not earned, but the gift of the God who calls us into being.  It is impossible to earn it.  Let’s pursue some other implications we can dredge from the parable.

Isaiah said in the first reading: Seek the Lord while he may be found.  That is not what happens in the gospel parable.  The landowner is the seeker.  The people are idling in the marketplace.  They are not seeking work but resenting that no one has hired us.  God calls at the beginning of the day and continues to the last hour of the day.

There is a marvelous moment near the end of the Evelyn Waugh masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited.  Lord Marchmain lies on is deathbed surrounded by family and friends including the parish priest who is urging repentance for Marchmain’s less than virtuous past.  It has been years since he has received the sacraments.  His motives for having been baptized are vague.  There has been little evidence of faith.  He left his wife and has been living with his mistress for quite some time.  Charles Ryder stands and scoffs at the attitudes of his Catholic friends as they kneel and pray for the dying patriarch.  The priest whispers God’s love in Marchmain’s hearing.  And it happens that just as despair is setting into the witnesses’ hearts, a faltering hand makes the sign of the cross, Marchmain’s final profession of faith.

What do you think of deathbed conversions?  What will be their reward as those late to faith stand before God’s judgment seat?  Surely it will be different for them than for those of us who were baptized in infancy and were faithful through all our lives.  That would only be just, wouldn’t it?  Perhaps, if we are talking about justice.  And who am I to say that there won’t be a difference?  But don’t miss an important point in the parable.  The Landowner seeks the laborers all through the day and invites them to go into the vineyard to be paid whatever is just.  And they are paid the full day’s wage, the same as those who labored through the long day.

Surely God’s ways are not the ways of humankind.  A terrible mistake is made when God is imagined as a tyrannical avenger.  You have heard, as have I, those who are quick to interpret everything from natural disasters to physical illness to be God’s judgment upon sinners.  Those who voice such messages would stand among those who asked Jesus about the man born blind.  Whose sin was it, this man’s or his parents’ that he was born blind?  And the answer remains: neither.

Most of the Jesus’ parables shock if we hear them correctly.  They are meant to make the hearers wonder if they could possibly be hearing what seem to be the implications of the story.  All of the parables speak of the wonder of God’s love, lavish in its outpouring for us.  That’s what grace is, unmerited and freely given.  What matters it the response.  Even those hired late in the day had to accept the invitation and go into the vineyard.  Jesus is the model.  His is the perpetual yes to the Father’s will finally accepting even death, death on the cross.

The Apostle Paul images what our response should be in all things, in good time and in harsh times, in health and in sickness, in life and in death: For to me life is Christ and death is gain.  He is writing from prison.  The beheader’s blade is imminent.  I am being poured out like a libation and my death is at hand, he said elsewhere.  Notice that in his suffering Paul keeps the promised wage in mind.  I long to depart this life and be with Christ.  Paul is ever the Apostle.  He was hired to the position late in the day unlike the other Apostles who walked with the Lord and bore the day’s heat.  Jesus in glory confronted Saul on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the new order.  From the moment of that blinding encounter on he lived to tell others about Christ and to form them in Christ’s likeness. He saw death as far better, a release from and an end to his sufferings.  Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.

What do we take from these readings?  Joy that we have been called.  Gratitude for the gift of faith to which we responded with a yes no matter at what stage in our life we perceived that grace.  Hope for the promised wage that will be ours if we are faithful, a wage that begins even now.  For us to live is Christ and to die is gain.  With Christ we will live in the community of love that is God for all eternity.  Imagine our rejoicing with all those similarly blessed, even those who said yes to God from their deathbeds.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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