18 September 2011
Philippians 1:20-24, 27
Once there was a certain woman who complained to her brother that she felt that her husband was a bit naïve or foolish when it came to making money. Apparently her husband had a company but according to his wife employed many more workers than was necessary. She felt that he could have sacked a quarter of the workers who could easily have been done without. This would not in any way affect the smooth running of the company and a much greater profit would be the result. When the brother of his wife questioned him the man said. ‘Of course it is true but where would these men who were unskilled find work elsewhere?’. I employ them so that their families can eat and go to school. I make enough profit each year to live very comfortably. Why would I want to make more profit if it meant getting rid of many of my workers?
The story reminds us clearly of today’s gospel which is one of the parables of Jesus. The focus of the parable is the generosity and compassion of the landowner. This man goes out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He could have remained at home and waited for the labourers to come to him, as they would have searched for work there. But the landowner is the one who takes the initiative. He is the one who goes out to search for labourers. Not only does he go early in the morning but he also goes a number of times during the day. There didn’t seem much point in going out at the ninth hour when the working hours were nearing their end. Certainly going out at the eleventh hour seemed rather foolish as these men could do hardly any worthwhile work. But of course that is the whole point of the parable. The landowner’s concern is not to make a huge profit. He is very concerned for the lives of those labourers who might otherwise be unemployed. Their families would also benefit.
The landowner is a symbol for God. He is the one who always makes the first move. He takes the initiative in seeking us out. He is not interested in seeking glory or profit for himself. His main concern is our good just as it was in the case of the landowner. God wants all people to be included in his kingdom just as the landowner wanted to give employment to as many as possible. God wants everyone to be included. The danger one feels is that some religions seem to make it hard for people to participate. They can set up many rules, which must be kept. This probably excludes a lot of people who then just leave their church. God is the great Includer. He welcomes everyone. As St.Paul says to Timothy: ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’. (1 Tim.2.4).
The parable is raising the question as to what Image of God we have. It seems that quite a number of people believe that God is a Profit and Loss God. That is, if we are virtuous, kind and forgiving to others we will earn God’s favour, his friendship. The parable is telling us that this may well give a wrong understanding of who God is. When I was a seminarian we had a superior. Once when someone asked him what the quality he most looked for in those preparing for the priesthood he immediately replied ‘generosity’. In the parable when those who worked hard all day long saw that those who came at the 3rd, 6th, 9th and 11th hours received the same as them they were very upset as we probably would have been if we had been in their place. The reply of the landowner as it is of God according to Jesus was ‘Why be angry because I am generous?
And yet it should be a very consoling gospel for many of us. Maybe when we were younger or middle-aged we were not too concerned about God. Sure, we may have gone to Sunday Mass and said some prayers. A fair number of people say that they wished that they were more attentive to God when they were younger. Especially if they have sinned seriously they wonder how they will make up for this. The parable reminds them that they are similar to those who came at the last part of the day and yet received the same as those who worked the whole day. God is an incredibly generous God. He does not act as we do. This may be a hard lesson for us to believe. It is never too late to turn to God. We may feel ‘how can he forgive me for this or this?’ The parable underlines his generosity. Even if we only turn to him at the eleventh hour of our lives the parable confirms that God will give us place in his eternal kingdom.
Another aspect of the gospel is that the landowner made a contract with those who worked all day to pay them a denarius which was a day’s wage for labourers. They agreed to this and received their just reward. With the others there was no contract just the promise of a fair wage. They had to trust that he would be true to his word. Their trust was very generously rewarded. It would be a pity if we felt we were beyond God’s generosity.
The first reading from the prophet Isaiah underlines for us that God’s ways are as far above our ways and his thoughts so far above ours that we cannot fully understand his ways of acting. The gospel says that the last shall be first just as those who were employed last of all were invited to come first.
Thus the parable is meant to underline God’s sovereignty or majesty in contrast to all human conceptions of work and wages. God’s sovereignty is seen in his goodness and generosity. Isn’t it great that God doesn’t act or judge according to our human understanding of who we think he is and how he should act? All our human conceptions of justice have to be reinterpreted in the light of God’s ways of acting as the parable shows.
‘Lord Jesus, help us to believe in your incredible generosity and patience towards us. May we be true witnesses of these to others? Amen’
Fr.Jim Kirstein, SMA