Sep 17, 2011

25th Sunday: Called to the Vineyard

Is 55: 6-9
Phil 1: 20-24, 27
Mt 20: 1-16

“Well, life just isn’t fair.” So says a parent to their indignant child, a teacher to a disappointed student, a coach to a frustrated football star, an employer to a disgruntled employee, and we say the same to our hurt feelings. If we have an expectation that no matter what the situation we will always come out shining or feeling good in the end, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

The truth is life is not a measure of keeping score; of balanced sides so it always measures perfectly. Some are rich and some are poor; some are successful and others don’t cut it or find they have to struggle. While we should always seek to correct injustice, particularly between rich and poor, life is not always fair but that doesn’t mean that we live in an eternal sense of frustration.

If we measure the illusion of consistent fairness against that of this Sunday’s Gospel we should feel rightly indignant. What is Jesus’ point? He tells a story about workers in a vineyard who are hired at various hours of the day. In the hot sun, those hired first have labored for a full day but those hired at the “11th hour,” the last hour of the working day, receive the same amount of pay as those first hired. Those who have toiled the whole day, simply receive a full day’s pay – nothing more for their labor. The issue is not that workers were paid what they agreed but those who worked for only an hour received the same. What employer would do such a thing? It isn’t fair. Take that to the HR Department! But, this is not a parable about us. As Jesus states, “the kingdom of heaven is like . . ."

In other words, this is what God is like with those who are called and those who are invited (Jew and Gentile alike), regardless of when they are “hired.” This example from ancient culture is not an illustration of what we would do but rather what God does; the way he thinks and his overwhelming generosity to call us all into life, his kingdom, the vineyard. As the landowner (God) says to the angry workers who felt they were cheated: “. . . Or am I not free to do as I wish with my money? Are you envious because I am generous? . . .”

The first reading from Isaiah drives home a similar point. God says, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” If we expect God to think like us we miss the point. God is not limited by our perceived set of boundaries between fairness and justice. We measure and calculate, compare and contrast.

God’s sense of extravagant generosity is like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15: 11-32). His love for his wayward son is greater than his right to punish and seek restitution for his son’s wasteful disrespect. The older son in that story is rightly upset that his irresponsible younger brother is welcomed home with a party. Just like the day workers in the vineyard of this Sunday’s story.

Such examples of divine generosity beg the question, “Then what difference does it make in how I live my life? If God is so willing to forgive why should I worry? Why should I try so hard if all I have to do is say I’m sorry?” That’s a logical outcome.

In our second reading from Paul to the Philippians we hear: “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The other day I found myself in a brief conversation at a gathering of about fifteen people. It was just a social event with food and drink. I had not met this woman and she introduced herself as one who went to our school in her younger years.

She stated she was raised a Catholic but no longer practiced or at least no longer attended Mass. Then she stated she was the godmother of a child I baptized about five years ago. I didn’t recall seeing her but it is certainly possible. Yet, her unexpected remark pushed a button in me. I thought for a moment about her somewhat proud admission she no longer practiced her Catholic faith and said to her, “You’re a Catholic who no longer attends Mass and you’re a godmother?” The role of godparent means something, it isn't merely symbolic, but I felt she had clearly missed the point.

She didn’t seem all that upset by her state and said, “And I will support my goddaughter when she is older in whatever religion she chooses.” My priestly thoughts, but well intentioned, were not exactly kind at that moment and I wanted to suggest she turn in her godmother license. But I also didn’t want to challenge her further in a public setting. I think she got my point. I was shocked not only by her admission but by her indifference to the Catholic faith and her failed commitment as a godmother. While that may sound a bit harsh she somehow missed the mark.

Does it make a difference in how we live our faith? Absolutely yes. Her indifference to the faith and its importance in our life is a poor example to the child for whom she is godmother. She is not a bad person but she has seen to leave the vineyard in which she was called to cultivate. The circumstances for doing so were never elaborated but I hope she will take our brief exchange not as a judgment but an opportunity to reconsider. Is she out of luck? No, of course not. The invitation to return is extended over and over again and I tried to make that clear.

It’s human nature for us to consider who is in and who is out. From the time of Abraham to Moses to Jesus and beyond God has offered to every generation a “full days pay.” First called to the vineyard were his chosen people. Last called, at the eleventh hour, were the Gentiles of which St. Paul became the instrument of God’s invitation. The Gentiles, that’s you and me, have received everything that was offered centuries before – and more for we know the Lord Jesus and we are called to work in the vineyard of the Church and society around us.

What kind of workers are we? We are sent in to the vineyard through our baptism and called to work – to love and serve in the name of Christ. It does make a difference how we live. The Eucharist is that moment when we gather all of our efforts in the presence of the landowner (Christ himself present in the Eucharist) to not only receive his abundant grace but to also give an account of our labors.

As the Catholic Catechism so wisely states: Chairy is the greatest social commandment.  It respects others and their rights.  It requires the practice of justice, and alone makes us capable of it.  Charity inspires a life of self-giving. (CCC 1889)

Let us not be envious because God is generous with everyone. Let us be grateful for what we have received and generous after the example of our divine benefactor.

Almighty ever-living God
direct our actions according to your good pleasure,
that in the name of your beloved Son
we may abound in good works.

(3rd Sunday in Ordinary time - new translation)