Homily for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24,27; Matthew 20:1-16
Theme: ‘Why be envious because I am generous’ (Mt 20:16)
Our readings last Sunday challenged us to imitate our heavenly Father by forgiving others as he forgives us. Today readings continue in a similar vein. They challenge us not to resent God’s magnanimity but strive, rather, to reflect his generosity in our relations with one another. Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God does not think the way we think, nor act the way we act: ‘The heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts’ (Is 55: 9).
Just how different God’s thoughts and ways are to ours is clearly illustrated in the parable of the Vineyard Owner in today’s gospel. It is important to note the significant elements of the story. The first noteworthy element is that it is the owner himself who goes out in search of workers for his vineyard. This was not the normal practice for an employer in Jesus’ day. If he needed extra workers he would send his foreman, or one of his employees, to the marketplace to pick them up. This Vineyard Owner however, goes to the marketplace himself. And he goes there several times, at different hours of the day, in search of workers to harvest his grapes. He is not just concerned about his business. He is clearly concerned also about the predicament of those who have been standing around all day in hope of finding someone to hire them.
The second significant element in the story has to do with the wages the workers receive at the end of the day. Starting with those who were employed last, which was standard procedure in Jesus’ time, the last to be employed receive their wages first, and they receive a full day’s wage, the same as those who have worked all through the day. If this happened today, the vineyard owner would have the workers’ Union on his back. Indeed, he would probably be forced out of business. We easily identify with the complaints of those workers who, having laboured throughout the heat of the day, expected to receive more money than those who had worked for just one hour. And yet, they have, as the parable makes clear, no justifiable grounds for their complaint. They received a just wage: the salary their employer had agreed with them.
Finally, we come to the main point of the parable, the sting in the tail – the last words of the Vineyard Owner: ‘Why be envious because I am generous’ (Mt 20:16). These words alert us to what the parable is all about. It is not about work and wages, about industrial relations or social justice. It is about God’s magnanimity of heart, his extravagant generosity, especially to the late-comers, those overlooked, left behind, or pushed to the margins of society. God’s ways, while not contradicting the demands of social justice, infinitely transcend them. As Pope Benedict teaches in his encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth), God acts according to a higher logic than that which normally governs industrial relations – the logic of gift or gratuitous love, rather than the logic of entitlement. Only in the light of this logic can we understand the foolish generosity of the Vineyard Owner, or the lavish welcome of the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son for his errant son. Only by this logic can we appreciate the extraordinary behaviour of Jesus in mixing with tax-collectors and sinners.
Commenting on the parable of the Vineyard Owner, the great biblical Scholar, N.T. Wright, makes the same point as Pope Benedict. He states that ‘God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to his over-flowingly generous nature.’ According to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, if we were treated according to what we deserve, ‘none of us would escape whipping’ (cf. Act 2, sc 2). Fortunately, God does not treat us according to our deserts, but according to his boundless generosity, mercy and compassion, as today’s responsorial psalm proclaims.
Today’s readings not only illustrate the divine logic, the logic of gift. They also challenge usto imitate God’s ways of thinking and acting in our relationships with one another. They challenge us to stop focusing on our entitlements or counting our deserts, and move from the narrow world of human calculation, of competition and rewards, into the magnanimous world of divine logic, where nothing has to be earned and everything is a gift; everything is free. In the words of a popular contemporary hymn: ‘Freely, freely, you have received. Freely, freely, give.’ I will end with a prayerful reflection on today’s readings from the pen of Flor McCarthy SDB:
‘My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are my ways your ways….’
How small our thoughts can be,
and how poor our ways of seeing and judging.
We think miserly thoughts, and act in miserly ways.
Because we have small minds and small hearts,
Lord, open our minds and enlarge our hearts,
so that we think more like you.
Let us not begrudge your goodness to others,
knowing that we too are undeserving of your favours,
and stand more in need of your mercy than of your justice.
Michael McCabe SMA
To listen to an alternative Homily for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.