25th Sunday of the Year Isaiah 55:6–9; Philippians 1:20c–24, 27a; Matthew 20:1–16a
Plane and paperclip The important thing in life is not what we achieved, but the love that went into our work.
Imagine there are four houses on your street. You own the house on the corner, and it is valued at $400,000. The house next to you is valued at $300,000. The third house is valued at $200,000. The last house is valued at $100,000.
Imagine one of your children saying to you, Daddy, would you sell our house if someone offered you $500,000 for it?” You reply, I’d jump for joy and sell it on the spot.
An hour later the phone rings and you answer it. You can hardly believe your ears. You are being offered $500,000 for your house. You jump for joy and sell it on the spot.
The next day you learn that the other owners on your street sold their houses to the same buyer, also. Then comes the thunderbolt. They each got $500,000.
You are so angry that you call the buyer and tell him off. He responds, Did I cheat you? Or are you jealous because I was generous?
This story is an attempt to put Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel in a modern setting. To appreciate Jesus’ original parable, we must keep in mind that the latecomers who went into the vineyard were not loafers. They were day laborers who needed a job. The fact that they were still waiting at 5 P.M. shows how badly they needed work.
In Jesus’ time, if a man didn’t find work one day, his family often didn’t eat the next. A man who found work early i n the morning rejoiced all day, and so did his family.
Why did Jesus tell the story? What point was he trying to make? In real life, who were the early workers and who were the latecomers?
The latecomers were the sinners in Jesus’ time who listened to his preaching and repented. The early workers were Pharisees who were angry that the sinners repented, entered God’s kingdom late, and were getting the same reward as they.
Their attitude is the equivalent of John’s when he became angry with Jesus on Calvary because Jesus forgave the good thief and said to him, Today you will be in Paradise with me. Luke 23:43
It’s interesting to note that had the early workers not learned what the employer paid the latecomers, they would have gone home joyful and thankful. As it was, they went home angry and jealous.
This raises a question. Why did the early workers resent the good fortune of the latecomers? Why did you resent the good fortune of the other three people on your street who got $500,000 for their homes, also? Why do so many people become happy or sad, depending on whether they think they are better off or worse off than their neighbor?
Jesus hints at the answer when he has the vineyard owner say to the early workers, Did I cheat you? Or are you jealous because I am generous?
We often resent the good fortune of others because we are jealous of them. But what makes us jealous of them?
One reason is that we think they are better off than we are. We think they have more money than we have. We think they are better looking than we are. We think they are more talented than we are.
Unfortunately, when we do this, we make the big mistake of judging them by the world’s standards, not by God’s.
If we judged them by God’s standards, we might discover that we are just as well off as they are.
Who knows? In God’s plan, our talents may be even more valuable than the talents of someone the world considers to be wise or powerful. Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 1:27–28. He writes:
God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful. He chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important.
Let me illustrate what Paul is talking about.
Several years ago an expensive laboratory jet was approaching Edwards Air Force Base in California. When the pilot tried to lower the nose gear to landing position, it didn’t respond.
The copilot ran a quick check and traced the problem to a faulty relay panel. Recognizing the problem, he hunted around for something to bypass the relay and activate the nose gear.
He found a paper clip and bent it, bypassing the problem and triggering the gear. It worked like a charm, and saved the expensive jet from a crash landing.
At that moment, for that special job, the lowly paper clip was more important than the rest of the lab equipment on the plane.
It’s often that way with God’s plan. Speaking in God’s name, the prophet Isaiah says in today’s first reading:
My thoughts . . . are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thoughts above yours.
Today’s gospel reading invites us to stop comparing ourselves to other people. It invites us to accept ourselves as we are. It invites us to follow Paul’s advice to the Galatians. Paul writes:
Each one should judge his own conduct. If it is good, then he can be proud of what he himself has done, without having to compare it with what someone else has done. Galatians 6:4
Ultimately, the important thing in this life is not what other people think of us or how hard we work in God’s vineyard. The important thing is what God thinks of us, and the love that motivates our work.
There’s a story about a famous preacher. He knew he was an excellent speaker, and he used his sermons to build his reputation.
At the end of his life, when he lay dying, it was clear that something was bothering him. His religious superior saw this and said, Father Matthew, be at peace. When you stand before Jesus to be judged, just remind him of all those beautiful sermons you preached.
Father Matthew replied, If Jesus doesn’t mention them, I certainly won’t remind him of them.
Let’s close with Cardinal Newman’s prayer:
God has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. . . .
Therefore, I will trust him. He does nothing in vain. He may prolong my life, he may shorten it; he knows what he is about. . . . O my God, I will put myself without reserve into thy hands.
Series II 25th Sunday of the Year Isaiah 55:6–9; Philippians 1:20c–24, 27a; Matthew 20:1–16a
Generous owner Be loving and generous, as your heavenly Father is.
September was the month when grapes were harvested in ancient Israel. Having the harvest come due then sometimes created a problem. For September was also the month when the rainy season began in Israel.
If the torrential rains came before the harvest, the entire crop could be severely damaged. And so harvesting the grapes often became a race against time.
To illustrate, consider a scenario that may or may not have been the one Jesus had in mind when he told today’s parable. In any event, it will give us a better understanding of the parable.
Picture a vineyard owner, waiting to the last minute to harvest his grapes; for the riper the grape, the better its taste. One morning he wakes up and sees that the sky is black with storm clouds. The torrential rains are coming.
The owner rushes to the marketplace to hire workers to pick his grapes.
As the day progresses, however, he sees that the storm is gaining on the workers. He goes back several more times to hire more workers to pick his grapes before the storm begins.
The owner’s efforts pay off, and he gets his grapes picked in time. He’s so happy that he decides to celebrate and pay all the workers a full day’s wage, even though some had worked only a few hours.
Reading between the lines of the parable, we get the impression that the workers who were hired at the start of the day did not work as hard as they could have. For it’s surprising that an experienced owner should miscalculate so badly the number of workers needed for his harvest.
On the other hand, the owner’s decision to pay part-time workers a full day’s wage and to pay them ahead of the other workers suggests they had worked extra hard.
So when the other workers complained, the vineyard owner said to them:
“I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. . . . [A]re you jealous because I am generous?”
Why did Jesus tell this parable? What point was he trying to make to the people of his time? In other words, who were the full-time workers and the part-time workers—in Jesus’ time?
The part-time workers were the sinners and outcasts of the day. They were the people who took Jesus’ preaching very seriously and reformed their lives.
They were people like the good thief on the cross, who repented at the last minute and was saved. They were people like the prodigal son, who repented after leaving home and was welcomed back by his father. The full-time workers, on the other hand, were people like the Pharisees, who became angry when sinners repented and entered God’s kingdom at the last minute.
They were people like the elder brother of the prodigal son. He became angry when his brother repented and was received by his father with open arms.
In effect, Jesus says of these people:
Behold how loving your heavenly Father is. Contrast his great love with your own lack of love toward your brothers and sisters.
To appreciate even more the lack of love that the full- time workers had for the part-time workers, keep in mind a further point about Jesus’ story.
The part-time workers, who were standing idle in the marketplace later on in the day, were not loafers. They were in the marketplace because that was where ancient day laborers gathered to seek employment. They would come early in the morning and wait around till late in the afternoon, hoping someone would hire them.
The life of these workers was hard. Their families lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Many of them lived on the brink of starvation.
If a father of a family failed to get employment one day, his family often went hungry the next day. If a worker found work in the morning, his family rejoiced all day and so did he.
It’s against this background that we can see how lacking in love the full-time workers were. They were begrudging their unfortunate brothers and sisters their next day’s meal.
And so the parable of the vineyard owner contrasts the loving attitude of the owner with the unloving attitude of the full-time workers.
This brings us to a practical application of the parable to our own lives.
The parable of the vineyard owner invites us to ask ourselves about our own attitudes toward our needy brothers and sisters.
How insensitive are we to their plight? Are we so wrapped up in our own efforts to make a living that we forget about them in their desperate need?
Are we so insensitive to their plight that we even find ourselves begrudging them the extraordinary help they sometimes get from people like the vineyard owner?
How different is our heavenly Father toward us.
Let’s close with a story.
Author Geraldine Marshall says that one of her fondest childhood memories of a birthday is not one of her own birthdays but one of her father’s.
On one of those days, her father gave her a beautiful stuffed tiger. Geraldine was bubbling over with joy.
Finally, after she calmed down, Geraldine said to her father:
But Daddy, it’s your birthday, not mine. I’m supposed to give you a birthday present! Why are you giving me one?
Her father took her in his arms and said:
Sweetheart, you have given me a birthday present the most beautiful present a daughter could ever give her father. It’s seeing the happiness that my gift has brought to you.
Geraldine still has that stuffed tiger. But, she says, the greatest gift her father gave her that day was not the stuffed tiger but an insight into the joy of giving.
Winston Churchill, the great prime minister of England, was right: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.
Series III 25th Sunday of the Year Isaiah 55:6–9; Philippians 1:20c–24, 27a; Matthew 20:1–16a Latecomer Christians Their work for God’s Kingdom is an inspiration for all of us to work harder.
These men who were hired last worked only one hour . . . while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun. Matthew 20:12
Charles Colson was one of President Nixon’s senior advisers. He was convicted in the Watergate Scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation as president.
In prison, he had a religious conversion. When he got out of prison, he embarked on an amazing ministry to prisoners and their families. Recently, Colson wrote a book entitled How Now Shall We Live?
One of the points it makes is that God uses many latecomer Christians to do remarkable things for God’s Kingdom. An example is a Vietnamese girl named Kim.
Most of you have seen her photograph in magazines, newspapers, and on TV. Her photograph won the Pulitzer Prize for the photographer who took it.
Kim is the Vietnamese girl running directly toward the camera, arms outstretched, her clothes burned off, and her body black from napalm burns.
Screaming in pain, she flees from a temple on which planes had dropped napalm fire bombs during the Vietnam war.
The photographer who took the photo rushed her to a hospital immediately. Incredibly, she lived through 17 surgeries over a 14-month period. The burns left parts of her body totally disfigured. Years after the war, a search was made to find out what became of her. They found her in a Saigon university, studying medicine.
After her discovery, the Vietnam government forced her to quit school and return to her province to be used as a propaganda tool to be a kind of poster girl illustrating the horrors of American aggression. During this period of exploitation which she deplored with all her heart she discovered the Gospel and became a Christian. She said later:
It was the fire of the bomb that burned my body, and it was the skill of the doctor that mended my skin, but it took the power of God to heal my heart.
Somehow, she made it to Cuba, a sister Communist country. There she resumed her medical studies, living on the 24th-floor of a high-rise.
Incredibly, this low-rent high-rise had neither running water nor a working elevator. This was a great hardship for Kim, because her burns still required daily washing and medication.
The young man who carried buckets of water up to her for this purpose eventually married her. On their honeymoon, they defected to the Canadian government. I n 1996, she accepted an invitation to speak at a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Before an overflowing crowd of Vietnam veterans and families, she said:
I have suffered a lot from both physical and emotional pain. Sometimes I thought I could not live, but God saved my life and gave me faith and hope. . . .
If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bomb, I would tell him we should try to do good things together to promote peace.
This beautiful story of a latecomer to Christianity brings us to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ parable of the Workers. Who did Jesus intend the late-coming workers and the all-day workers in his parable to stand for in his own day?
They were sinners. They were the people who took to heart his preaching and reformed their lives. They were the people like the Prodigal Son,who repented his sinful life and returned home to the joyful embrace of his loving father.
The all-day workers, on the other hand, were people like the Pharisees who who worked all day in the vineyard and resented the fact that repentant sinners were being called to God’s Kingdom, in spite of having led sinful lives.
It is against this background that we see how lacking in love and mercy these self-righteous Pharisees were. This brings us to each one of us here.
How does Jesus’ parable of the Workers and stories of late-coming Christians, like Colson and Kim, apply to us today? Look at it this way.
Every Christian is a worker, called by God, to labor in the vineyard of God’s Kingdom on earth.
Like the all-day workers in Jesus’ parable, some of us were called from birth. Others of us, like Colson and Kim, were called at a later hour.
And maybe some of us who have been called from birth have not been working as hard as God expected us to work.
Perhaps as someone suggested this is why the owner of the vineyard in the Gospel had to keep hiring more workers. It wasn’t that he had underestimated the size of the job to be done. It’s just that some of the all-day workers were not pulling their load.
They were not using their talents as God had intended that they use them. And that leads us back to the fact that some late-coming Christians are doing truly remarkable work in the vineyard of God’s Kingdom.
Witness the work of Colson and his army of volunteers who are preaching the Gospel in prisons. And witness the help they are giving to families of prisoners, as these families adjust to the loss of a father or brother. Finally, witness the example that a convert, like Kim, is having on others by her patience in dealing with pain— and by her forgiveness of those responsible.
And so, as we return to the altar, let us thank God for the zeal and the inspiration of those who have been called at a later hour to work in the vineyard of God’s Kingdom.
And let us ask God to inspire and motivate us to join them in working harder, also, to bring in great harvest that is out there.
Then in heaven we will all rejoice together, singing the praises of our God, who has been so merciful, so forgiving, and so generous to all of us.