THE TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – September 21, 2014

 

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 55:6-9

A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 20:1-16a

 

In Hebrew Scripture, often God is characterized as angry and vengeful. Granted, there are passages that could support that characterization. God does punish the Israelites for their infidelities. God rains down havoc on the pursuing Egyptians. Until Moses intervenes, God wants to be rid of the troublesome people God has freed from slavery only to become unfaithful as they wander in their freedom in the desert. But that is only part of the picture.

In this Sunday’s first reading, the Prophet Isaiah reveals the other side of God as a God who lavishes love and is generous in forgiving. Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call him while he is near. Isaiah proclaims this message to the wicked and the scoundrel, that is, to those most might judge to be outside the pale of God’s mercy. By no means, Isaiah tells us. God does not think or judge the way people do. God is about mercy and forgiveness. God 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 may not think and act in this way, but God does. It is all about grace, the 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.

Today’s Gospel puts a bit of a different slant on the time issue. Jesus tells us a familiar parable about a landowner hiring field-workers at various times of the day, beginning early in the morning, continuing to late afternoon, having promised the first hired the usual daily wage. The later hires he promises an indefinite what is just. This promise of the just wage is extended to those hired at 5 o’clock for the last hour of the workday.

You remember how the parable goes. When the workday is over, those hired last are paid first and are given a full day’s wage. So also are the others hired at various hours during the workday. Each is paid a full day’s wage. Those hired first watch all this and conclude that when their time 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 toil in the intense heat of the summer day. They are outraged when they are paid the usual daily wage.

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

Have you ever asked 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.

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 workers are idling in the marketplace. They are not seeking work so much as resenting that no one has hired us. The Good News for us is that God seeks and invites even into the last hour of the day.

There is a marvelous moment near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited. Lord Marchmain lies on his deathbed surrounded by family and friends. The parish priest urges Marchmain to repent for his less than virtuous past. It has been years since he received the sacraments. His motives for having been baptized as an adult are vague. He has been unfaithful to his marriage and there has been little evidence of faith. The narrator, the cynical Charles Ryder, stands on the fringe of the group and scoffs at the attitudes of his Catholic friends. The priest whispers God’s love in Marchmain’s ear. And it happens that just as despair sets into the witnesses’ hearts, Marchmain’s faltering hand makes the sign of the cross, a final profession of faith.

What do you think of deathbed conversions? What will be their reward as they stand before God’s judgment seat? Surely they won’t receive the same as we who were baptized in infancy and remained faithful through all our lives. That would hardly be just, would it? 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.   They are paid the full day’s wage, regardless of the hour in the day they were hired.

Clearly God’s ways are not the ways of humankind. A terrible mistake is made when God is imagined as a tyrannical avenger. Those who cling to such an image are not a few. You have heard, as have I, those who are quick to interpret everything from natural disasters to physical illness to be God’s judgment on sinners. Racism and sexism are reflections of that mindset. Those who voice such opinions 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? The answer remains to today: neither!

Most of the parables Jesus told shock if we hear them correctly. They are meant to make us wonder if we could possibly be hearing correctly. All of them speak to the wonder of God’s love, lavish in its outpouring upon us. That’s what grace is, unmerited and freely given. What matters in 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 even as he accepted death, death on the cross.

The Apostle Paul shows us what our response should be in all things, in good times and in harsh times, in health and in sickness, in life and in death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. Paul writes from prison. The beheader’s blade is imminent. I am being poured out like a libation and my death is at hand, he said in another passage. 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 burden of the day’s heat. Jesus in glory called Saul while he was on the road to Damascus. From that time 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, 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. Imagine our rejoicing with all those similarly rewarded, even those who said yes to God from their deathbeds.

Sincerely,

Didymus

P.S. The parable might also call us as church to exhibit God’s generosity in forgiving and reconciling. If it is all about love, as Pope Francis reminds us, then evidence of judging and forbidding access to the Table ought to be banished from our practice. Anyone coming into the presence of the Assembly should immediately perceive that All are welcome here!

 

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