Scripture readings: Book of the Prophet Isaiah 55:6-9; Letter to the Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Gospel According to Saint Matthew 20:1-16
This Sunday’s Gospel passage is taken from a section in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew where Jesus spells out some of the requirements for a life lived in and for God. Included among the requirements is the call to love without measure, acquiring a childlike attitude, as well as a readiness to sacrifice all for the Kingdom of Heaven, what can be called “impossible” detachment, and finally, the real meaning of “status” in God’s eyes.
The “punch line” in the Gospel parable this Sunday is this: “Many that are first will be last and the last first.” What does this say about God’s decisions, “when the Son of Man comes,” at the final judgment and the dawn of the new world? Will those who lived ages ago have advantage over the more recent arrivals on planet earth? Clearly that is not the point Jesus is making in the parable this Sunday. Jesus’ point is this: don’t be too confident or complacent in your spiritual life so as to actually be missing the point, by growing proud or neglecting the essence of fraternal love. In God’s eyes, there is no small or great, first or last, since all of us are equal before God’s free and gracious love, given as a gift each moment of our existence.
Saint Therese of Lisieux, the 19th century French Carmelite nun and now Doctor of the Church, liked to point out in regards to “who will be happiest” in God’s Kingdom, that all who are in heaven will be completely satisfied. Think of a thimble, a drinking glass and a bucket, Therese said. Fill them all to the brim. Which of the three is the fullest? All three in fact are completely full. Such is the case as well for all the blessed in heaven. Where they have gone we hope to follow, trusting we will be truly fulfilled by God.
In Jesus’ parable this Sunday of the vineyard owner, there is a reversal of payment made to the workers at the end of the day. Those who came last and worked very little are paid first and the exact same amount as those who had labored all day. The “sting” in the story is not so much that the last workers are paid first, but something else. It is the landowner’s words of self-defense in the face of criticism that is supposed to grab our attention. What might have shocked the first hearers of the parable and maybe ourselves as well, is the apparent injustice and a lack of social propriety on the part of the landowner.
The vineyard owner’s decision to “do as I please with my money” forms the heart of the parable. In the parable the landowner is to be understood as representing God. With this in mind, we can presume that God does what He wills, whether we “like it or not,” so to speak. God’s generosity cannot be outdone and it may be very different from our own standards of conduct.
The parable of the vineyard owner and the distribution of equal wages relates to other places in the Gospels where Jesus associates with and is kind to sinners and tax collectors. In fact Jesus uses the parable of the vineyard owner in the face of attacks from certain religious leaders of the time. The parable emphasizes that the landowner is allowed to choose as he see fits, giving to the last as he gave to the first, even if his generosity is resented by some.
Jesus uses strong words for the vineyard owner being attacked: “Are you envious because I am generous?” A literal translation of these words in the Greek original is this: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” That says it all! How often people, maybe ourselves as well, are not satisfied with how God works in the lives of others or in our own lives.
Today’s parable is a good reminder of God’s gracious generosity. No one is excluded and all are welcome to receive it. In the face of divine goodness, narrow categories of “how God should act” are set aside. Human prejudice, narrowness and selfishness are in sharp contrast to the way God acts. Nonetheless we are challenged to mirror and express in our lives the bountifulness of God and to live in freedom from prejudice as Jesus consistently preached and lived. This message is no less important today than it was when first expounded.
We are always free to resist or reject God’s ways and close ourselves to His gifts. However, as the Prophet Isaiah reminded his hearers in the first reading for this Sunday: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
God’s love and generosity are always a cause for adoring admiration.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB