in Ordinary Time
Sept. 23, 1984
Matt 20: 1-16
Salesian Junior Seminary, Goshen, N.Y.
I won't be using a written text for my homily tomorrow, but it will be on this parable and will offer the same basic truths from Jesus' teaching that I presented in this homily 27 years ago.
Jesus was a tremendous teacher, a tremendous public speaker. (He probably could even have made Latin interesting.) One reason was that he told stories. These stories were interesting because they reflected everyday life. But they often had surprise endings that made a point and caught his listeners off guard. The ending, and the point, were frequently beyond our everyday experience.
Grapes photographed by Mary DeTurris Poust at the Abbey of the Genesee
The parable in today’s gospel is a case in point. We have a vineyard—a likely setting not only in 1st-century Palestine but also in this part of NY State. We have a landowner who needs harvesters, and we have the unemployed hanging out in a central spot.
The landowner hires the men for a denarius each—an honest day’s pay for 12 hours (the ordinary workday was dawn to dusk). As the parable goes on, the man keeps returning to the town square and hiring more workers, but the monetary arrangement is left somewhat vaguer: “I will give you whatever is just” (20:4).
The day ends, and the foreman brings out the pay. So far, so good. We expect the 1st hired will get paid 1st and the last hired, last, and the workers will be paid in proportion to their work.
As you heard, we get surprised. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. The 1st reading tipped us off when Isaiah proclaimed, “My thoughts aren’t your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (55:8).
What’s going on here? What’s the point that Jesus is trying to make?
As we know from numerous situations in the Gospel, Jesus was criticized by the religious leaders for associating with people whose lives were tarnished, people who didn’t lead 100%-pure lives: publicans, the men who collected taxes for the Roman oppressors and grew fat by gouging their fellow Jews; and that broad category of people called “sinners,” those who didn’t observe all the details of the Law—maybe they ate unclean foods, maybe they did work that was ritually unclean, maybe they dealt regularly with the Gentiles, maybe they didn’t go to the synagog, maybe they talked in study hall, and of course, maybe they did things that we too would consider sinful.
Jacob Willemsz de Wet's painting of the workers in the vineyard coming to collect their day's wage
The outlook of the Pharisees was simply to avoid these people and let them go to hell. They didn’t want to get soiled themselves, and many of them took intense pride in their own uprightness and legal perfection. You remember that other parable Jesus told, the one about the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the temple to pray, and how they prayed, and which one Jesus commended (Luke 18:9-14).
To the scandal of the Pharisees, Jesus not only associated with these so-called riff-raff, but he enjoyed their company and won many of them over. These were ordinary, struggling human beings, trying to make a living, trying to have a little fun in a very hard everyday life, and trying, essentially, to be decent people. And Jesus makes 3 points in the parable:
1. At what point we accept the Lord’s invitation doesn’t matter. All who answer the call can come into the kingdom and be full citizens in it.
2. Eternal life—membership in the kingdom of heaven—is a freely-given gift of God. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. It’s not measured out according to how much time or effort we put into it. The only criterion is Christ’s call and our answer. And,
3. We have no business comparing ourselves to anyone else in the vineyard. If, in the last analysis, we’re all sinners and all forgiven by God in Christ, how can we be upset about whom he forgives, or when he forgives them, or how he forgives them, or what gifts he gives them? How can we think that we can judge anyone’s fitness for eternal life, when we could still be standing around the square waiting for the Lord, or anyone else, to pay attention to us?
Perhaps we can remember these points in our own lives when it comes to dealing with other people. Jesus has invited us to be in his kingdom, and all of us need that invitation, i.e., need to be saved from our sinfulness. I’m struggling with my sinfulness, and I have to allow that you’re struggling not only with mine but your own. We’re challenged to be patient, considerate, generous with one another, like the master of the vineyard, and not to jump on top of each other all the time. We can appreciate his goodness to us; we can also appreciate his goodness to everyone else and give them time to grow—an especially important point for us in the seminary, and also for families.
May the Lord grant us not only his forgiveness but some of his own large-heartedness.