Dear People of God, we profess that God is all-holy, but what do we mean by “holy”? In our first reading we were given an intimation of what God’s holiness means:
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.
This characteristic “otherness”, or perhaps even “strangeness” of God’s holiness was also shown very clearly in the Gospel reading, where you 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 appreciate 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 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 perhaps that is the case here: the very difficulty that this parable has for us teaches us a basic, and absolutely essential, lesson: we -- of ourselves -- are not holy; God alone is holy, and He is sublimely Holy.
That was the lesson God had, by His great prophets, sought to teach Israel over many centuries, and it was the prophet Daniel who finally summed up Israel’s long historical experience of God’s dealings with them in words of simple finality giving expression to a fiercely-resisted and long-overdue humble 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 had earlier emphasized the same saving truth when he prophesied:
“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 ... 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)
Thus, God promised life -- a new heart and a new spirit -- to a people who would learn from His warning proclaimed by Ezekiel. And, indeed, a fruitful branch of Israel ‘did turn and live’ by learning to humbly acknowledge and whole-heartedly embrace those subsequent words of the great prophet Daniel:
O Lord, righteousness belongs to You, but to us belongs shame of face, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against You.
And it was with the furtherance of that same spirit of humble renewal in view – no longer for Israel alone but for mankind as a whole -- that God the Father sent His only-begotten Son as our Redeemer, so that, through His Son’s death and Resurrection on our behalf, and by the subsequent gift of His Spirit, we might be able, ultimately, to truly return to Him and live as His children -- adopted in Jesus His only begotten Son, made man and become their Saviour -- with filial love before His holy presence for all eternity. Let us, therefore, listen again to, and carefully learn from, Jesus’ teaching about God and ourselves in this parable.
First of all, why did Jesus tell His disciples this parable?
The central theme of Jesus’ preaching was always the Kingdom of Heaven and its accessibility, and that was the question posed by the Twelve (Matthew 19:25s.) just before Jesus told them our parable:
‘Who then can be saved, (if the rich who-can-do-good-things can’t)?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’
He then proceeded in St. Matthew to answer their problem by His parable, for which Luke only remembered a short saying of Jesus (12:32):
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.
In the 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;
and that later he went out again about the third, sixth and ninth hours to hire more workers. Now that was most unusual; there was a steward by his side, he would pay the wages and he would normally have done the drudgery of repeatedly going and coming to negotiate with and hire workers as needed: for on such occasions voices might well be raised, opinions expressed, and accusations made; rough and tough men might, at times, call for firm handling, and such negotiations was not normally carried out by the landowner himself.
But, for this parable, the personal relationship between the landowner and the hired workmen is of the utmost importance: we are told that the first group strike a deal with the landowner: so much work for so much pay. From then on, subsequent groups trust in the landowners’ generosity, bearing in mind their work; until, with those hired at the eleventh hour, hope in the landowner’s goodness is the whole reason for their undertaking an obviously negligeable amount of work.
The landowner in the parable was compassionately concerned about workers unable to find work; that is why he came out five times looking for husbands and fathers unable to feed and shelter their wives and families without work. Jesus Himself was supremely compassionate towards the lost sheep of Israel; He had come to save them and us from sin by giving Himself, sinless as He was, to death for us.
Look at the workers now. Those hired at the eleventh hour might well have gone off home after the sixth, and especially after the ninth hour (mid-afternoon) … for who would be hiring men so late? They remained, however, because they hoped for what seemed most unlikely … they had seen or heard of this landowner hiring men, first of all, at the normal time, then he had come back again mid-morning, mid-day, and even mid-afternoon, offering some jobs and hope … this last group therefore, those who clung on hoping to the very end, were still waiting there at the eleventh hour, one hour before sun-down and tools-down.
What was the difference between those five groups of men?
Each of the early groups had been waiting to receive offers of work ready and primed with confidence in their own abilities; and now, having 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 dawn, the third, sixth, or ninth hours’.
That, however, was not the whole picture Jesus willed to portray; He was speaking ultimately about the Kingdom of Heaven, His life theme, and only the last group of hired workers -- the last-gasp-group so to speak -- came to recognize the basic reality and truth of their, and our, situation as regards the Kingdom of Heaven. Only the last group, hired at the very 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. They were the only ones whose experience had made them humble enough to recognize just how much they depended upon the goodness of the landowner, who, indeed, had hired them primarily not so much for the work they could do for him but out of 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 their own performances. The eleventh-hour group, however, were the only ones who, through hope, had become aware of the goodness of the landowner who had shown such compassionate understanding of their need, they were the only ones able to help us too realize something of the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven proclaimed by Jesus, ‘Thank God this landowner came back again for us!’ The last group of workmen -- most fully aware of the landowner’s goodness and compassion, are meant to be models for us all who seek to know, love, and serve God and show gratitude for His gifts.
The sublime truth being taught by Jesus was that the gift, the reward, God offers to His faithful -- being both divine and eternal -- infinitely transcends any earthly work we can present – any personal merits we can invoke. It is an undeservable GIFT. Our first and foremost Christian calling and duty is to praise God with grateful hearts and minds for His great goodness whereby He has called us Himself and given us an opportunity to work for His Kingdom on earth, with Jesus, by the power and under the inspiration of His Spirit. Whatever work we do will only have value before God in so far as it is offered as our small part in the great redeeming work offered to the Father by Jesus, His Son, our Saviour and Brother; but that humble awareness will be, indeed, at the root of all our heavenly delight: God is All in all; He is all for us in Jesus, and we are for Him and for each other in 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 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 well come towards the end of their life thinking “I’ve been very successful in my business, I have made a lot of money, built up a good reputation, and have much to leave to my children”. Indeed, that is how things may seem to others also, such as Job, who, in the midst of all his difficulties and trials, struggled to understand:
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)
How many suffering people in the world today are tormented with similar thoughts! And yet, 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.” Only work that leads us to forget ourselves and praise God is ultimately acceptable to God and profitable for us.
People of God, whatever our situation during our time on earth -- whatever good we may do and whatever trials we may have to endure, whatever praise we may be given and whatever honours or riches may befall us -- only when we come to gratefully recognize and respond to the great goodness of God secretly and surely guiding and sustaining, protecting and comforting us, in and through all these things, only then will we begin to appreciate the fullness of happiness in Him that we call eternal life.
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 become so totally emptied of all self-esteem and pride, as to be totally open to 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, to live is Christ, (and) to depart and be with Christ … that is very much better. Conduct yourselves (always) in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.