25th. Sunday of Year (A)
(Isaiah 55:6-9; Paul to the Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16)
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.
That characteristic “otherness” -- including even a certain “strangeness” -- but above all, the “absolute and incomparable superiority” of God’s holiness, was also shown very clearly in the Gospel reading, for you all heard the cry of the earlier workmen on receiving their pay for the day:
These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.
Although our understanding can accommodate the attitude of the landowner in the parable, nevertheless our emotions are such that we are much more readily inclined to sympathise with those early workers and, as a result, we can find ourselves somewhat puzzled by Jesus telling such a parable for our instruction.
However, Jesus not infrequently shocked people in order to make them pay attention, and that would seem to be the case here, for the very difficulty this parable has for us teaches us a basic, and absolutely essential, lesson: namely, that we, of ourselves, are not holy, only God is holy; and His holiness is so sublimely transcendent that we cannot rightly conceive it other than by experiencing it … first through early stages of growing appreciation, and then through succeeding phases of wonder, amazement, and ultimately in self-abandoning humility and self-committing love.
That was the lesson God had, by His great prophets, been teaching Israel over many centuries. The prophet Daniel finally summed up Israel’s long historical experience of God’s dealings with them in words of simple finality and conviction:
O Lord, righteousness belongs to You, but to us shame of face, as it is this day -- to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, those near and those far off in all the countries to which You have driven them, because of the unfaithfulness which they have committed against You. O Lord, to us belongs shame of face, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against You. (Daniel 9:7-8.)
The prophet Ezekiel taught the same truth in terms that correspond yet more closely to our present situation as we try to understand Jesus’ teaching in the parable before us:
The house of Israel says, 'The way of the Lord is not fair.' O house of Israel, is it not My ways which are fair, and your ways which are not fair? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways," says the Lord GOD. "Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies," says the Lord GOD. "Therefore turn and live!” (Ezekiel 18:29-32.)
And so, despite Israel’s failure to understand and unwillingness to obey, God still wanted, and was determined, to offer them fullness of life in appreciation of and response to His own holiness, as those words of Ezekiel proclaimed:
“I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies”, says the Lord GOD. “Return and live!”
Therefore, the Father sent His Son as our Redeemer, that through Him we might receive forgiveness of our sins and a share in His holiness by the gift of His Spirit; and, ultimately, be prepared and enabled to live as His children with love in His Presence for all eternity. Let us, therefore, carefully try to understand more of Jesus’ teaching about God and ourselves in this parable.
We are told that the landowner:
went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard (and) agreed with the labourers for a denarius a day,
before going out again, about the third, sixth, and ninth hours to hire more labourers.
Now that was most unusual; there was a steward by his side to pay the men’s wages, and he it was who would normally have done the drudgery of repeatedly going and coming to negotiate with and hire workers as needed. On such occasions, voices might well be raised, heated opinions expressed, and wild accusations made -- rough and tough men under stress, then as now, might call at times for firm handling – and therefore, such negotiations would not normally be carried out by the landowner himself.
The landowner was obviously deeply concerned about those workmen unable to find employment: looking below mere surface appearances he saw them not just as potential labourers for his own personal profit, but as husbands and fathers unable to earn enough to feed and shelter their wives and families; much as Jesus saw, with supreme compassion, the ultimate evil of sin ravaging the lives of those lost sheep of Israel whom He had come to save by giving Himself, sinless as He was, to death for all who would be brought to repentance.
Look at the workers now. Those hired at the eleventh hour could have gone off elsewhere or even back home much earlier, for example after sixth the hour; why hang around so very frustratingly, especially after the ninth hour (mid-afternoon), for who would be hiring men so late in the day? The fact that they did remain, therefore, would seem to show that they did so because they hoped for what seemed most unlikely. This last group therefore, were those unwilling to give up hope: hoping against hope, they were still waiting there at the eleventh hour only one hour before sun-down and tools-down.
The central theme of Jesus’ preaching was the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, and the parable He was putting before the people was, even in the saying of it, taking on reality: for the Kingdom of Heaven is about a concerned and committed Lord and Saviour, and a humble people irrevocably committed to trusting in and hoping for Him.
What was the other difference between those five groups of men? Did you notice? And if you did, do you realise the significance of that difference which is slight in words but portentous in meaning?
Only the last group, hired at the last minute so to speak, said that they had been standing there doing nothing “because no one has hired us”. Experience had led them to recognize that the opportunity to work was a gift, a blessing, one which they could not give to themselves. Each of the other groups, having been more or less spared the humbling anxiety of wondering whether any work would come their way, had been waiting to receive offers of work ready and primed with confidence in their own abilities, and those who had accepted a job and now completed the task, were keenly aware of the amount of work they had done for the landowner: ‘we have slaved all day; we have been hard at it from the third, sixth, or ninth hours’.
That, however, was not the whole picture; indeed, such a portrayal distorted the basic reality of their situation which only the members of the last group -- the last-gasp-group so to speak -- had come to recognize through an understanding of what the landowner had done for them. They were the ones whose experience made them humble enough to recognize -- as the hours went inexorably by -- just how much they depended upon the goodness of the landowner, who, in fact, ultimately hired them not for the work they could do for him but out of his compassion for them and for their families in need.
At the end of the day when all were gathered to receive their pay all those workers taken on in the beginning and then in the third, sixth, and ninth hours were full of the work they had done … and that brought them bitterness of heart. The eleventh hour group, however, were able to taste something of the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven proclaimed by Jesus, for they were stunned by the awareness of God’s goodness and the landowner’s compassion. Thank God this landowner came back again for us!
Self and sorrow; Jesus and joy!
The sublime truth here taught by Jesus was that the gift, the reward, which God offers to His faithful, being both divine and eternal, infinitely transcends any earthly work we can give, any personal merits we may invoke. Our first and foremost Christian calling and duty is to humble ourselves before God and praise Him with grateful hearts and minds for His great goodness whereby He has called us into His Kingdom and even given us an opportunity to work for that Kingdom, in His Son and under the guidance of His Spirit. And, whatever work we do will only have value before God in so far as it is offered as our humble yet loving contribution to the great redeeming work offered to the Father by Jesus, our Saviour and Brother; and that awareness will be the deepest root of our heavenly delight: God is All in all; He is All for us in Jesus in Whom we are all for Him and for each other by His Spirit.
There are many who go through life without reference to God, they seek to do their own will, not His; they want to satisfy their own desires or the world’s expectations, not win His promises. They have that attitude of mind described in the book of Job:
They say to God, 'Depart from us, for we do not desire the knowledge of Your ways. Who is the Almighty that we should serve Him? And what profit do we have if we pray to Him?' (21:14-15)
Such people may, indeed, come towards the end of their lives thinking: “I’ve been very successful; I have proved myself a winner; I always managed to get the most out of the system”; or perhaps in the case of simpler, less ambitious, or more timid individuals, “I have always been popular and well regarded.”
Job, in the midst of all his difficulties and trials, struggled to understand these things:
Why do the wicked live and become old (and) mighty in power? Their descendants are established with them in their sight, and their offspring before their eyes. … They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave. (Job 21:7-8, 13)
And how many suffering people in the world today are tormented with similar awareness and such thoughts!
Still, the Christian message is clear: those who work for themselves, for this world alone, will ultimately experience the terrible truth of Jesus’ judgment:
They have had their reward.
Our work for God should never lead to the bolstering-up of our native self-satisfaction and pride. On the contrary, whatever befalls us during our time on earth -- whatever good we may be given to do, whatever successes may come our way, or whatever trials we may be called upon to endure -- only when we come to gratefully recognize, and whole-heartedly respond to, the goodness of God secretly and surely guiding and sustaining us in and through all these happenings, will we begin to appreciate something of that fullness of joy and peace in Him called eternal life.
People of God, here below, we are always – in response to our heavenly calling -- on the way to our heavenly reward, and there can be no greater blessing than, in the course of our efforts for God, to have become so emptied of our self-esteem and pride, as to be totally open and able to delight to the full in the infinite beauty and goodness of God, as members of His family in Jesus. Remember St. Paul's words:
For me, life is Christ and death is gain; I long to depart this life and be with Christ … (for) that is far better. Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ. (Philippians 1:23, 27)