TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – September 24, 2017

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

Dear Reader,

God, in Hebrew Scripture, is often characterized as an angry, vengeful God.  Granted, there are passages that might support that characterization.  God does punish the Israelites for their infidelities.  God certainly rains down havoc on the pursuing Egyptians.  Before Moses intervenes, God wants to be rid of the troublesome people who have been lead from slavery into the desert freedom only to grumble and complain about the difficulties of life in the desert.  But that is only part of the picture.

Isaiah reveals another characteristic of God, one often forgotten or ignored.  God is generous and 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, in other words, to those most might conclude to be outside the pale of God’s mercy.  By no means, Isaiah declares.  God does not think or judge the way people do.  God is about forgiveness and mercy.  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 declares that the people should not try to understand how and why God acts the way God does.  People do not ordinarily think or judge this way.  God does.  If we are listening, we might conclude that it is all about grace, an outpouring of God’s love.

The operative word in Isaiah’s passage is seek.  For the scoundrel and the wicked there is still time to seek God.  Isaiah urges them to act without delay because time can run out.  The days are limited.

This Sunday’s Gospel puts a bit of a different slant on the issue.  Jesus tells us a parable about a landowner who hires field workers at various times of the day, from early morning to late afternoon.  The first hired are promised the usual daily wage.  Those hired later are promised the uncertain and indefinite what is just.  And that promise is extended to those hired at 5 o’clock for the last hour of the workday.

Having heard the parable before, you know how the story 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 who had been 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.  Would you blame them?  After all, it had been a long day of labor in the intense heat of the summer day.  But they are outraged when they are paid only the wage to which they had agreed.

This parable should not be used as a model for fair practice in the marketplace.  That is not what the story is about.  Hear the key words in the landowner’s redress to the resentful laborers: I am generous. Here is something that I have meditated on.  I challenge you to try it, too.  How would I have felt, had I been one of those first hired?  How would you feel?  What assumptions would we have made as we watched those others hired late in the day as they were paid the full day’s wage?  I’m afraid I would have concluded the same, as did those daylong workers in the parable.  Would You?  Of course.  It is only human after all.

Isaiah proclaimed in the first reading: Seek the Lord while he may be found.  That is not what happens in the Gospel parable.  The landowner, who here is a representation of God, is the seeker.  The people are idling in the marketplace.  They do not seek work.  They resent that no one has hired us.  God calls them through the day and even into the last hour of the day.

A marvelous moment occurs near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited.  Lord Marchmain lies on his deathbed surrounded by family and friends, including the parish priest who is urging repentance from Marchmain for his less than virtuous past.  It has been decades since he received the sacraments.  Even his motives for having been baptized are vague.  He has exhibited little evidence of faith.  Charles Ryder, a non-believer, stands in the group and scoffs at the attitudes of his Catholic friends.  The priest whispers God’s love in Marchmain’s hearing.  It happens that, just as despair sets into the witnesses’ hearts, a faltering hand makes the sign of the cross and Marchmain makes his final profession of faith.  And later we will read that Ryder’s faith began in that moment.

What do you think of deathbed conversions?  What will be their reward as they stand before God’s judgment seat?  Surely it will be different for them than for us who were baptized in infancy and were faithful through all our lives.  That would only be just, wouldn’t it?  Perhaps.  Who am I to say that there will not be a difference?  But do not miss an important point in the parable.  The Landowner seeks the laborers all through the day and invites them to go into the vineyard knowing they will be paid whatever is just.  The last hired and the first are paid a full day’s wage.  Again, ponder that.

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 televangelists who are quick to interpret everything from natural disasters to physical illness to be God’s judgment upon sinners.  No wonder an instinctive response is to wonder what they did to deserve that.  Those who preach 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?  The answer remains: neither.

All 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 the parables speak to the wonder of God’s love that is lavish in its outpouring for us.  That is what grace is, unmerited and freely given.  What matters is 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 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 had, 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, called Saul on the road to Damascus.  From that time on, Paul live 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 with those who said yes to God from their deathbeds.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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