Sep 20, 2020: 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Isaiah 55:6-9

Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
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.

Today’s first reading includes a call to worship and a call to conversion. Like today’s gospel reading, it makes clear that people do not earn the invitation to be in right relationship with God.

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near.

Isaiah’s first call to the people is a phrase that normally invited people to the sanctuary; here, Isaiah is using it to exhort the people to approach God.

Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts;

Even scoundrels and the wicked are invited to repent and turn to the LORD for mercy.

The prophet describes their sinfulness as a pattern of sin, not merely isolated offenses. They have embarked on a “way” (derek) of life that has taken them away from the God with whom they have entered into covenant. This is nothing short of total betrayal.

The word for wickedness usually refers to external behavior, but here it is coupled with the word mahăshābâ, meaning “thoughts” or “plans.” The sinners have not only chosen a course of action opposed to the laws of God, they have devised plans contrary to God’s plans.

Let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

The word used here for “turn” (shûb), in all its forms, is the twelfth most frequently used verb in the OldTestament. It means “to turn from evil and to turn toward the good,” implying that those who have sinned were once in relationship with God but have turned away. The exhortations to turn back are not merely suggestions; the verb-forms indicate they are imperatives. The people are summoned to worship and repentance.

In the face of this, the prophet assures them God will still be compassionate (rāham) toward them. God is gracious in forgiving, pardoning sinners again and again.

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.

Those who do not consider themselves scoundrels or wicked, who have tried to be good all their lives, might resent the fact that sinners are invited to repent and are accepted by God.

Sinners are forgiven not because they have earned forgiveness but because God is generous. Is this fair? If we are self-righteous we may think that it is not fair. But, as the prophet tells us, God’s ways are not our ways.

Isaiah makes an analogy: The difference between the thoughts and plans of God and those of humankind are as vast as the expanse between the heavens and the earth. The comparison is ludicrous, of course, for there is no comparison. The difference between the disposition of sinful men and the disposition of God is incalculable.

2nd Reading – Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a

Brothers and sisters:
Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
If I go on living in the flesh,
that means fruitful labor for me.
And I do not know which I shall choose.
I am caught between the two.
I long to depart this life and be with Christ,
for that is far better.
Yet that I remain in the flesh
is more necessary for your benefit.
Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.

This week we begin a four-week study of Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Philippi is a city north of the Aegean Sea named after Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. It is the site of the first Christian church in Europe, which Saint Paul founded around the year 51 AD, during his second missionary journey.

Scripture scholars think that Philippians contains parts of three separate letters. Today we read a section of a joyful letter written while Paul was in prison in Ephesus, probably around 55 AD. We join the letter after Paul has told the Philippians that his “situation has turned out rather to advance the gospel, so that my imprisonment has become well known in Christ throughout the praetorium and to all the rest, and so that the majority of the brothers, having taken encouragement in the Lord from my imprisonment, dare more than ever to proclaim the word fearlessly” (Philippians 1:12-14).

Brothers and sisters: Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.

Because he is in prison and does not know what the future holds, Paul is contemplating the possibility of death. The phrase “in my body” (sōma) indicates he is talking about physical life and death and not speaking metaphorically.

This is not just an intellectual exercise on Paul’s part; imminent death is a real possibility for him. Although the decision of living or dying was probably not in his hands, it is his attitude toward these options that’s important. At issue is the extent to which Christ will be glorified, either through Paul’s continued life or through his death.

For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.

For Paul, union with Christ is what gives primary meaning to life: living in Christ, with Christ, and for Christ is uppermost in his mind. Death would allow him to become fully united with Christ.

It’s important to note that Paul does not welcome death out of despair; he does not value it as a means of escaping the misfortune he may be suffering. His own physical safety and comfort play no part in his considerations.

“It seems that for him death would be profitable and life would be more a penalty. For this reason Paul says for me ‘life is Christ, and death is gain.’ The death of the body is nothing amid the spirit of life. So we too are ready to die with Christ that we may live with Him.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 378), The Death of His Brother Satyrus 2,40]

If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.

Life on earth would lead to a continuation of his present ministry. While death might offer him the kind of union with Christ that he really desires, it will probably not be as advantageous for others. If he continues “in the flesh” (sárx), he will be able to further the preaching of the gospel, his ministry will continue to enrich those to whom he has already preached, and future fields of mission will be created.

And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two.

Paul so trusts God’s love and mercy that he doesn’t know whether, if he could choose, he would choose life on earth or death.

I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.

Paul’s unselfish commitment to the welfare of his converts is clear. He is willing to postpone the joyful union with Christ for which he yearns and of which he is certain, in order to spend and be spent for the benefit of those who would hear the gospel from him.

“He admits that it might be much easier to be dissolved and be with Christ. But nonetheless he knows that it is necessary for him to remain in the flesh for the benefit of the faithful, so that their glory may abound in the Lord and all may praise the Lord when they see him again. They will thereby increase their knowledge and become more deeply grounded in faith. How great was his affection for the believers, that he does not choose what he says would be much better for himself. Rather he wants what is more profitable to many, in the assurance that what conduces to the benefit of many will also please the Lord.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles Philippians 1:23]

Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Until he can see them again, Paul admonishes the Philippians to lead worthy lives in Christ.

“The summing up of one’s whole life for a Christian is this, to conduct oneself according to Christ’s gospel, to announce His grace steadily both to oneself and others, to have hope in Him, to do all that one does according to His commands. For this is what is means to ‘conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.’ A person can live honestly and uprightly, but this is not adequate to Paul’s meaning. Rather we are to conduct ourselves according to Christ’s gospel regardless of what happens and to do so in a worthy manner, living according to Christ’s precepts and doing what Christ wants.” [Marius Victorinus (ca. A.D. 355), Epistle to the Philippians 1,27]

Gospel – Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o’clock,
the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.’
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o’clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o’clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
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.’
When those who had started about five o’clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
‘These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
He 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?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Today’s gospel reading is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which warns us against the sin of envy. Many of the parables Jesus taught are somewhat startling, but the one selected for today’s gospel reading is particularly shocking to our sensibilities.

Though it may seem strange, this parable clearly shows how the graciousness of God can easily be mistaken for injustice.

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.

The hiring practice described is quite common in many areas of the world, even today. Workmen were generally to be found gathered early about the gates of the town or in the marketplace, prepared for any kind of work.

We aren’t told why the owner went out so early (at dawn) to hire laborers with such seeming urgency. Perhaps it was because rains were on the way, and if the grapes weren’t taken in before the rains they would be ruined. Or perhaps the landowner knew that an early start was key to procuring the best workers.

After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

The usual daily wage was, pitifully, barely a subsistence amount. If a worker missed one day’s work, he and his family went hungry.

Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise.

Notice that only the first group contracted for the usual daily wage. The later groups received a less definite promise: “I will give you what is just.”

Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’

One wonders why some had not been hired by 3pm, and even more so, by 5pm. It could not have been because their labor was not needed, for the master of the household (oikdespótēs) kept going out throughout the day to enlist more laborers. Perhaps they were known to be incompetent. Whatever the case, they were unwanted. This is very important to the story.

He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’ 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.’

It now becomes clear that Jesus is using this parable to expound on a statement he made just prior to this reading, in Matthew 19:27-30: “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.  So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’

The early workers are the victims of rising expectations: They did not expect more than the usual daily wage until they learned that the people who had worked much less were receiving the same amount of pay. The daily wage is the same, yet they expected more because they gave more. It is not truly equal because of the boss’s generosity.

What is scandalous is that the landowner is most generous toward the workers who were unwanted by others. Those who were hired first did what they had agreed to do, and they were compensated as promised, but they were dissatisfied. However, notice the exact nature of their complaint: they weren’t dissatisfied with what they received, but with what others received.

He 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? Take what is yours and go.

This is the classic definition of justice: render to each his due. Note the dismissive words of the master: “Take what is yours and go.”

What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?

By giving to one, the employer has not taken away from another.

Are you envious because I am generous?’

Although the complainers would call their cause fairness, this is a classic case of envy. All sins have contrary virtues for which they’re sometimes mistaken: love and lust, prudence and avarice, self-respect and pride, righteous indignation and anger, caution and sloth. The contrary virtue of envy is justice.

Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The phenomenon of envy amongst believers has been present since the beginning of Christianity:

  • In the crowd around Jesus, the Pharisees resented Jesus’ idea that the common people (much less the known sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes) had a chance of being on a par with them.
  • In the early Church, Jewish Christians complained about equal treatment accorded the Gentiles coming into the Church. Why should Gentiles be accepted on with an equal right to form part of the new people of God, when the Jews had been involved in this covenant relationship for two thousand years?
  • Today, established parishioners often think they have rights over newcomers.
  • Many lifelong Christians resent “deathbed conversions.”

Today’s parable teaches that nothing God gives us is due to us; everything he gives is from his free bounty and we can’t possibly earn it or deserve it. It’s a matter of gratuitous, unmerited invitation; therefore, those who were first to receive the invitation have no grounds for complaint when God calls the “last” and gives them the same unearned gift: membership in his family.

The parable also shows the tender compassion of God. A person unable to find work is a tragic figure, and all the pitiful latecomers wanted was the chance to earn a day’s pay. God, our vineyard master, pays all of us much more than we deserve, rescuing us from the streetcorners of unemployment. And the fact that the first will be last and the last will be first can give comfort to all. God’s gifts to those who are last should not bring envy, but loving joy.

When we welcome those who came into the vineyard long after us and share its rewards, we will be replacing envy with its opposite: generosity of spirit.

Connections and Themes

Our attention shifts slightly in these last Sundays of Ordinary Time. We turn from concentration on the character and responsibilities of discipleship to reflecting on the importance of the end of time. As we move toward the close of the liturgical year, we are invited to consider the final coming of Christ and the Last Judgment. When themes of christology and discipleship appear, they do so within the context of the eschatological age of fulfillment.

Final justice. The idea of the end of time brings thoughts of judgment. Actually, our eschatological tradition says there will be two judgments: a personal judgment immediately after our death when we are confronted with the specifics of our individual lives, and the final judgment at the end of time when all things will be laid bare. The thought of one judgment is enough to strike fear in the hearts of many, to say nothing about having to face two judgments. We sometimes waver between the idea of divine justice, which requires that good be adequately rewarded and evil be appropriately punished, and the idea of the mercy of God, which we hope will be generously extended to us. As we begin today to consider the end of time, we are invited to look closely at the character of God’s judgment.

At the outset, we must remember that we have no firsthand way of knowing anything about either the individual or the final judgment. We may have some insights into the experience of dying but nothing about what happens after death. However, our religious tradition is quite consistent in its teaching on this matter. As evidenced in the readings for this Sunday, both the Old and the New Testament insist that the justice of God does not conform to the standards of human justice. This does not imply it is capricious. Rather, it is incomprehensible, and it is so because its foundation is mercy. This suggests that God takes into consideration the circumstances and the weakness of human beings and does not demand strict and exact retribution.

However, something is required. The first reading exhorts sinners to repent and amend their ways; in the second those invited into the kingdom are expected to act appropriately within that kingdom.

Lives in Christ. We all find consolation in this view of divine judgment because we all want to be recipients of divine mercy. However, our hearts are not always generous enough to rejoice in the mercy extended to others. It is almost as if we feel we have been cheated in some way, as if God is required to apportion mercy according to merit and we are the ones who determine standards for this apportionment. Those of us who persist in our demands for such strict retribution face not only frustration with God but bitterness of heart toward those we think have received more than they deserve.

As disciples of the kingdom of God, we are called to announce the good news of the gospel. It seems inconsistent of us to proclaim the mercy of God and then be filled with resentment whenever others experience it. That same divine mercy can work in us to abolish our pettiness and indignation and replace it with generosity of heart. Furthermore, it can transform us so completely that we too can extend mercy toward others rather than exact retribution from them. Judgment belongs to God, and God exercises it mercifully. We are called to conduct ourselves with the same kind of generosity, the same kind of love, the same kind of mercy. Paul serves as an example of this kind of generous giving.

God’s generosity. What’s most striking about the landowner is the relentless way he himself goes out to find laborers, his constant willingness to hire the ones that are still standing there, and his desire to pay them a full day’s wage. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner. God takes the initiative in seeking us out. God chooses us despite our utter unworthiness. And God is lavish in his self-gift to us. To love the kingdom of heaven is to love this landowner and the way he acts. The temptation is for us to measure our life by what we imagine we deserve. But in truth, God is always giving us far more than we deserve, even in calling us to labor in his kingdom!