25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year: A
Is 55.6-9; Phil 1.20-24, 27; Mt 20.1-16
The Law of the Seed
Take a look at an apple tree. There might be five hundred apples on the tree, each with ten seeds. That's a lot of seeds. We might ask, "Why would you need so many seeds to grow just a few more trees?"
Nature has something to teach us here. It's telling us. "Most seeds never grow. So if you really want to make something happen, you should better try more than once."
This might mean.
- You'll attend twenty interviews to get one job.
- You'll interview forty people to find one good employee.
- You'll talk to fifty people to sell one house, car, vacuum cleaner, insurance policy, or idea.
- And you might meet a hundred acquaintances to find one special friend.
When we understand the 'Law of the Seed', we don't get so disappointed. We stop feeling like victims. Laws of nature are not things to take personally. We just need to understand them - and work with them.
Successful people fail more often. They plant more seeds.
Is God Unjust?
Has God been unjust to us? To me? To my family? To my Country? To my community? These questions cannot be answered. But God’s grace is really great. It comes to us without any of our merits. Whatever we have today has been a gift of God’s grace.
That’s what the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is really about. God’s grace comes to different people at different times and in different ways. And that includes everyone here. Perhaps some of us may feel that we have not been the persons we could and should be. Maybe we are correct. But we haven’t missed our opportunity for salvation. God’s grace is amazing. There is still time for him to radically change our lives. The landowner has "hired" (misthoomai) the workers (ergates), which implies an offer to pay (misthos) them for their work. In contrast, Mt 21.28 has a father telling his son, "Go and work (ergazomai) in the vineyard today," which may not involve payment for work done.
"What do you pay your volunteers?" is a question raised by experts in volunteerism. We don't pay them with money, but what kind of recognition, self-fulfillment, joy, sense of accomplishment, etc. do they receive for their work? An agreement (symphoneo) is reached between the landowner and the first workers. (Symphoneo was used in 18.19: "if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.") A denarius for a day’s work does not indicate a generous landowner. It was the minimum wage a family in poverty could exist on. This agreement speaks against interpreting this parable primarily as an illustration of God's generosity. The wages aren't that great. The workers have barely enough to live on. They remain in poverty, but their needs for this day will be met. Thus it may be better to translate agathos (v. 15) as "good" than as "generous". It was good for the landowner to give the workers a minimum wage that was enough to live on for the day. It was not a generous wage.
An interesting picture can be created with the word "idle" (argos = lit. "not working" which can imply "doing nothing" or "being ineffective"). The "cure" for being unemployed (at least in the parable's picture) has to come from someone else being willing to invite you to come and work. This results in two benefits: the hiree is given what is needed (work & wages) and the hirer receives what is needed (work done).
We need to Work
Does God need us to work? That seems to be a theme in Matthew where Jesus says: "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (9.37b-38). Perhaps our great emphasis against works-righteousness (which is centered on getting what one deserves, i.e. "What do I have to do to be saved?") has kept us from seeing the importance and necessity of good works (which is centered on responding to God's grace, i.e. "You are saved, what are you going to do?").
The "cure" for our unfulfilled and non-productive lives is not going out and finding something to do to fill up the time that benefits just me; but hearing our "owner's" invitation to work in his vineyard.
The Owner’s Fault
The whole problem at the end of the parable is the landowner's fault - not because he paid them all the same, but because he paid the last first. Remember, as I said near the beginning of these notes, this parable comes as an explanation of Jesus statement: "Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" (Mt 19.30). Now we see what happens when this is acted out.
If he had paid a denarius to the first ones hired first, they would have gone home and not seen the last one's hired getting paid the same amount. The payment order allowed the first hired -- the long term workers (or church members?) to witness the last one's getting paid, which resulted in the first hires to think that they would get more (v. 10).
The word for "think" (nomizo) does not refer so much to a rational process (as logizomai), but "to assume," "to presume," "to suppose," based on what one expects to happen or what is "customary" or the "rule" (which are meanings for the root nomos). Usually such assumptions are wrong as in its other uses (Mt 5.17; 10.34).
Look at some of the amazing ways that God has changed people we know. So often we have all encountered a person who has done serious damage to his or her life and family through alcohol or other chemical dependency. Then we marvel how God’s Grace not only led that person to recovery, but made him or her, a source of strength for others looking to recover. That is the amazing Grace of the Divine Employer.
John Paul II was very much aware of the working of God’s Mercy. He addressed women who had suffered through an abortion and empowered them with the determination to work for life and protect other women from going through what they went through. This is the amazing Grace of the Divine Employer.
Don’t Give Up
The Gospel encourages us not to give up on ourselves. God never gives up on us. We can always start new, whether we have just been lukewarm Christians or whether we have been at war with God. Not only does God refuse to hold us to our pasts, He forgives us through confession and transforms us to become vehicles of conversion for others. The Divine Employer does not want us wasting any more time. Even if we are pretty well advanced in age, and the day is drawing to a close, He still has work for us to do.
Pride of Performance does not represent ego. It represents pleasure with humility. "The quality of the work and the quality of the worker are inseparable." Half-hearted effort does not produce half results; it produces no results.
What are you Doing?
Three people were laying bricks. A passerby asked them what they were doing. The first one replied, "Don't you see I am making a living?" The second one said, "Don't you see I am lying bricks?" The third one said, "I am building a beautiful monument." Here were three people doing the same thing who had totally different perspective on what they were doing. They had three very different attitudes about their work. And would their attitude affect their performance? The answer is clearly yes.
The Traditional Symbol
The vineyard was a traditional symbol for Israel (see especially the classical text of Isa 5.1-7) and Matthew will present another vineyard story in 21.33-46. Although the story itself does not directly state this, the reader can presume it is the harvest time since the landowner hires a number of day laborers to work in the vineyard. The story begins reasonably enough. At dawn a "landowner" (literally, the "head of the household") goes into the village marketplace to hire laborers and offers them the usual daily wage of one denarius; see 18.28). The fact that the landowner himself hires the laborers (instead of his manager mentioned in 20.8) is somewhat unusual and begins to put the spotlight on the one who is the focus of this story. The landowner goes back to hire additional workers at different periods of the day (literally in the Greek "early in the morning," "noon," "the third hour" and, finally, "the eleventh hour"), tracking for the reader the long day of hard work. No specific wage is promised, only the landowner's word that he would pay "the usual wage" (literally, "what is just"; dikaios, the term so favored by Matthew; see, e.g., 1.19; 27.19). Curiously the laborers hired last, when asked why they are idle, reply that "no one has hired us"-an explanation that suggests they were willing to work but were ignored.
The parable breaks beyond the conventional pattern when at sundown the landowner sends his manager to gather the laborers and gives them their pay (payment was expected at the end of a day's labor; see Lev 19.13; Deut 24.14-15). The manager is instructed to give out the wages "beginning with the last and then going to the first"-words that alert the reader to the words of Jesus framing the parable. The laborers hired last receive a full day's pay of one denarius and when those hired first come for their wages, they expect to receive more and thus complain to the landowner when they receive pay equal to that of the other workers. The expression of their complaint is one of the keys to the parable's interpretation: "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat" (20.12).
The landowner's reply is gracious (he addresses the laborer as "friend," 20.13; see also 22.12) but firm. The laborer received exactly what was agreed and was not treated unjustly. More important, the landowner is supremely free to do what he wishes with what belongs to him and therefore the laborers should not look on his generosity with an "evil eye" (the literal expression behind the "envious"; see above 6.23). Therefore the parable ends with a firm emphasis not on conventional assumptions about a fair wage but on the sovereignty and generosity of the "lord of the vineyard" (the literal words of 20.8). He is the one who determines that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
Excellence comes when the performer takes pride in doing his best. Every job is a self-portrait of the person who does it, regardless of what the job is, whether washing cars, sweeping the floor or painting a house. Do it right the first time, every time. The best insurance for tomorrow is a job well done today.
Michelangelo had been working on a statue for many days. He was taking a long time to retouch every small detail. A bystander thought these improvements were insignificant and asked Michelangelo why he bothered with them. Michelangelo replied, "Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle."
Most people forget how fast you did a job, but they remember how well it was done.