Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2005
September 18, 2005
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Is 55:6-9; Psalm 145; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16)
Over the centuries a lot of attention has been paid to determining what was going on with the laborers in today’s parable.
Some have suggested that the story veiled within the parable was a conflict between the early followers of Jesus and others who came later. It’s a common human situation for those who were in on the beginnings of a community or movement to claim control and keep the newcomers on the fringe. “Hey, we were there at the beginning — and you guys should be treated the same as us?” Perhaps. It’s a reasonable possibility.
Some others take a more pointed interpretation, that it’s all about the conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. We certainly have a lot of evidence in the New Testament that they were struggling to claim the center of the Jesus movement. Remember how they decided to establish deacons because the Apostles were using their time refereeing fights between the two groups? A reasonable interpretation, perhaps.
Others would make the parable merely an exhortation to moral behavior, a morality story. “Don’t be so greedy! You’re being treated fairly. Don’t be looking over your shoulder at how well the other guy is being treated!” Certainly that points to a common enough distortion of our spiritual lives: comparative spirituality. Building our relationship to the Lord around others instead of doing the hard work of examining our own behavior. Once again, a possible interpretation.
But I want to suggest that all of these interpretations run the risk of missing a much more profound point.
The parables of Jesus were not in the first instance focused on us, the teaching of any old wisdom figure. They were intended to be a revelation about the one whom Jesus called “Father”, “Abba.” And any meaning we are to draw about ourselves comes from a deeper understanding of who God is. The mission of Jesus was to reveal his Father’s plan: what God hopped for from creation.
So we need to shift our focus and look at the behavior of the landowner in the parable. What is he like? What does he do?
He seeks out helpers for his harvest.
In the parable he is up “at dawn.” It’s a literary form for being there at the beginning, before anyone else is stirring. The Lord is seeking our help from the beginning of creation — and from the beginning of each of our lives.
He looks out over his fields and can see what a great harvest of wheat and grain there is to be gathered in. And he sees he can’t do it himself. He needs helpers.
And he goes out again. And again. And again. Those repeated initiatives are the way of saying he never stops. He never ceases inviting, calling. You and I are important to the Lord — always. There is never a single moment in your life or my life when any one of us can say, “No one has hired me.” No matter what our age or gender or race or ethnic background — or our story of sin and failure.
God’s ways are not our ways, as Isaiah reminds us. With our limited insight and will and passion we would have given up long ago. The harvest is too big, I don’t have the resources or the stamina to keep at it. Our God is always near, always forgiving — and always inviting.
And what does he enlist our help for? To bring about the kind of world his Father desires: a world in which people are caring and compassionate and just and peaceful in their relationships with one another. Where no one is excluded from the dignity of being a contributor. Where the orphan and the widow and the alien in the land can stand tall and present themselves, not as victims to be made dependent but as valued sharers of precious wisdom.
It’s called the kingdom. Remember, Jesus didn’t preach ‘church’, he proclaimed the call of the kingship of his Father. From the perspective of Kingdom the Father is as near to us as the person sitting next to us in the pews; as the person who lives next door or in the next office, or at the laundromat or supermarket.
Where can we see signs of the Kingdom occurring? Just see the amazing acts taking place in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. As horrific and painful as that event has been in the lives of so many people, we need to see and reflect on the good that is pouring forth in so many places. Individuals, and communities, far removed from the devastation read or watched; they discovered a need — and they knew they were called to help.
Something deep inside was awakened within them. It challenged all sorts of artificial limits and barriers they had built up to protect themselves from the deepest reality of creation. As a result of Katrina they tapped into a level within themselves where discovered our common creaturehood. And they find themselves actually doing things they might have secretly fantasized about but never had the courage to undertake before they were jolted by what they were seeing and hearing and learning. People in Utah who had never seen a black person, taking black evacuees from New Orleans into their homes — for as long as it takes. Community leaders and principals saying “we’ve got to take these kids into our schools; they’ve lost everything.” We’re all interdependent, they are not different from us, we’re sisters and brothers, flesh of the same flesh and bone of the same bone.
We’re given a striking example of where this transformation can lead, in the brief account we have today from St. Paul writing to the Christians at Philippi.
Just think about what is going on. Paul is in prison, and very probably facing death. And he considers the choice he confronts. For Paul the only thing that makes sense, that gives life, is to be with Christ — wherever that it. And so he finds himself in a dilemma. He longs to be called forth from this world by death in order to be with the Lord. That’s what he would prefer. But is that where the Lord awaits? And he concludes that for now he is being called to remain in this difficult situation, to keep on doing what he calls ‘profitable labor.’ His contract as the Lord’s co-laborer is not ‘up’. And so he accepts that he must keep at the mission — “for your good.” It’s not for himself but for the Lord’s people. The owner of the vineyard is still seeking help with the harvest so he will forego his most ardent wish.
There are people have suggested that Katrina was a ‘wake-up call’ for us. It’s not a bad image. But as I listen to some of them, I think they may be presenting a distorted image. “Katrina is God’s way of punishing us for our SINS!” A way of appealing to our guilt. I think Jesus’ way is not based on guilt but on a desire to live up to who we really are. The wake-up call is to put us in touch with our common human dignity and privilege once again. We — you and I — are called people. We were hired at the moment of our creation, and more profoundly at the moment of our Baptism, to do what? To praise God by our service of those whom the world may tell us are different and unworthy of our attention, much less our care, but who Katrina reminds us are our sisters and brothers.
At the end of the book of Revelation, God says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with them.” Let us open the door and eat and drink in joy.