Sunday Scripture Readings

twenty-fifth sunday

in ordinary time,

september 22

Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145;

Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16

OUR GOOD NEWS: We are puzzled but grateful that God is not "fair." Today's parable surely ranks among the most puzzling and disturbing in the Gospels. Through it Jesus taught that God is not fair and doesn't play by the rules. He challenged the idea of our earning a higher place in the Kingdom through heroic moral living and selfless service of Church and neighbor. Warning! This parable can be dangerous to our religious convictions! In Palestine, grapes ripen under the hot summer sun and must be gathered quickly before rains begin in late September. The "workmen" were no street-corner loungers but men who hired themselves out by the day to interested employers. Like poor peasants of all times and places, these lived on the edge of starvation, desperate for the day's wage to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families. Increasing pressure to get in his harvest caused the landowner to augment his work force as the day wore on. Those showing up later in the "marketplace," an informal hiring hall, doubtless had been looking elsewhere. These waited out the workday rather than returning to a worried wife and hungry children, hoping against hope. Jesus' story contrasts two groups: those hired at 6 a.m., working 12 hours in the blazing sun and brutal sirocco (desert wind); and others who labored only an hour in the cool of early evening. The denarius given was the acceptable going rate - a "full day's pay." Those hired early were content - until latecomers received the same. No fair! The mature response would be to share the good fortune of fellow laborers at this landowner's rare generosity. Their greedy reaction resembles children fighting over someone getting a bigger cookie, or employees resentful of lazy, inefficient associates drawing equal pay. Originally, Jesus may have directed this parable to critics of his association with outcasts. Through him, God generously offered salvation to all Jews, not just pious observants. Later, when the story circulated orally in the early Church, the concluding sentence ("last shall be first") applied to Israel's rejection and pagan acceptance of Christian Good News about Jesus. For his part, Matthew placed the parable immediately following Peter's proud claim that Jesus' disciples had left everything to follow him. This evangelist thus made explicit another meaning of "last shall be first." There are no seniority privileges in the Church. Leaders and members of longstanding, careful observance must guard against presumption and unseemly familiarity. A gift must never be mistaken for what is owed, nor God held to our imperfect standards of distributive justice (what is deserved). Genuine Christian holiness, Jesus teaches here, is revealed in a willingness to serve others to the neglect of personal advantage, even spiritual advantage. We contribute to Christ's cause in equal measure whether active or confined, in health or in sickness, disabled or aged. Today's first reading agrees: God's ultimate plan for the fulfillment of his creation is not always understandable or consonant with our ideas of what is right and fair.

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