Sunday of Week 25 of Ordinary Time (Year A) – Alternate Commentary

Commentary on Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24,27; Matthew 20:1-16

The gospel story first of all needs to be understood against the background of the early Christians. Those who have worked long hours in the vineyard, “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”, are the Jewish people. The late arrivals, those who have come at the 11th hour are the new Christians, many of them Gentiles of “pagan” origin.

Perhaps today’s gospel – addressed mainly to Jewish Christians – reflects some resentment on their part at the newcomers enjoying all the benefits with no tradition or life of observance behind them. One of the sad themes of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus, himself an Israelite, first reached out to his own people, but they rejected him. He then turned to the Gentiles who accepted him, and showed very clearly that the Spirit of Jesus had come down upon them in abundance. Truly it could be said that:

…the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Unfair treatment
Nowadays, many people reading this parable have problems with what seems to be a quite unfair treatment of the labourers. Our reaction (perhaps under the influence of trade unionism and “fair play”) generally is that those who have done more, who have given more, should get more. Those who work 12 hours should get more than those who work for one hour. That is simple justice. Anything else is simply exploitation.

However, justice is the whole point of the parable and of Jesus’ teaching. If we have problems with the parable, it means that we are not yet on Jesus’ wavelength. It is put well in the First Reading from the prophet Isaiah. Let us listen to him:

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

A different viewpoint
What this means is that we have to look at this story from a very different point of view. We have to learn what God’s justice is like. Another name for God’s justice is mercy and compassion. In the eyes of the world it can sometimes seem very unjust. In the parable the point being made is not that the longer workers got less than what was their due but that the later workers got exactly the same treatment from their master.

Things are not being measured according to individual output but according to need. All, early or late, have exactly the same need for God’s mercy and God’s love and everyone gets all of it.

So, rather than criticising God for acting this way, we should be deeply grateful. Sometimes we, who have “borne the burden of the day” and tried over many years to live up to the demands of the Gospel, may regard it unfair that a person, who has led a terribly immoral pagan life, can have a last-minute conversion and die in God’s love.

Two reflections
There are two things that can be said about that. First, we ourselves should be grateful that our God is ready to accept us back at any stage once we express sorrow for our sins and wish to be reunited with him in love. God – as the life of Jesus clearly manifests again and again – is ready to accept the sinner back at any time, even at the 11th hour. God has a notoriously short memory as far as our past is concerned. This is something that we should be deeply grateful for.

Second, it is a strange way of looking at our Christian way of life to think that, by following it, we are losing out to people who live a life of sin and immorality. It is the person who lives a life based on the Gospel values of truth, love, generosity, sharing, and justice who experiences real happiness. The life of sin is often based on a futile search for happiness through pleasure and enjoyment.

Freedom in Christ
The high point of Christian freedom is expressed by Paul in today’s Second Reading from his letter to the Christian community at Philippi in northern Greece. Paul is in prison, and faces the possibility of being executed for his Christian faith. But he is ready:

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way but that by my speaking with all boldness Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, yet I cannot say which I will choose. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

This is an extraordinary example of what is known as Ignatian “indifference”, that is, the perfect acceptance of what God wants, the perfect acceptance of God’s ways, and the total merging of my vision with his. And this is done actively, not passively. Let us ask him that we may have the same level of freedom and generosity in our own lives. For there is the secret of our real happiness.

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