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Features \ Asia - Liturgical Reflections

XXV Sunday, September 24, 2017

XXV Liturgical Sunday - RV

XXV Liturgical Sunday - RV

18/09/2017 12:25

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

 Anecdote: # 1: “That’s not fair!” How many times, in the course of a given day, have you heard someone protest, “That’s not fair!” Children on a playground shout when they detect a foul play: “That’s not fair!” Siblings doing household chores may complain, “I’m doing more work!” or “My chores are more difficult; that’s not fair!” Students at school may resent the extra attention given to a classmate... “She’s the teacher’s favorite; that’s not fair!” A brother thinks his piece of pie is smaller than his sister’s -- “That’s not fair!” Someone at work receives a raise in salary when another person thinks he/she is more deserving: “I have seniority. I’ve been here longer; that’s not fair!” The coach of the Little League baseball team always puts her child in as starting pitcher; other players are annoyed... “That’s not fair!” Taxpayers bristle at the fact that increasing numbers of people are applying for and receive welfare from the government... “I have to work hard to make a living for me and my family. So should everyone else... that’s not fair!” In each of these several examples, human sensibilities regarding fairness and patience have been offended, precisely because of the fact that they are human. Most of us think that good work, seniority and experience should be rewarded, that all should be subject to the same rules, like “First come, first served,” that everyone should be treated impartially and that there should be no exceptions and no favorites! Therefore, when confronted with a situation such as that put before us in today’s Gospel parable of identical wages for different numbers of hours of work, our sense of fairness in provoked. (Patricia Datchuck Sánchez). -- This is probably one of the most controversial parables ever uttered by Jesus Christ, creating heated debate about the unusual generosity of a benevolent vineyard owner.

Introduction: Today’s readings are all about the sense of justice and the extravagant grace of a merciful God. While God is both just and merciful, God’s mercy often overrides His justice and, hence, God pardons us unconditionally and rewards us generously by opening Heaven for the Gentiles and the Jews.

Scripture lessons: In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds the exiles in Babylon that their God is more merciful than they are, and more forgiving.  He is ready to pardon the infidelity which has resulted in their exile. Their merciful God will bless them with material and spiritual blessings. Hence, Isaiah exhorts them, and us, to seek the Lord and to put aside evil ways in order to receive His mercy and forgiveness. Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 145) reminds us that, although “the Lord is just in all His ways,” He is at the same time “gracious and merciful.” In the second reading, Paul offers himself as an example of total submission to God’s grace and God’s will. He is ready to live continuing his mission if that is God’s will. At the same time, he is ready to die and join the Lord if that is God’s will. In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us the strange parable of a landowner who hired laborers at five different times during the course of one day to work in his vineyard but paid the same living wage for a full day’s work to all of them. This story of the landlord's love and generosity represents God’s love and generosity to all of us. It illustrates the difference between God's perspective and ours. God's provisions for our spiritual lives will never run out, and when we share our blessings with others, we tap into the inexhaustible Divine supply.  This story shows us how God looks at us, sees our needs and meets those needs generously and mercifully. The parable also shows the mercy and generosity of God in allowing the later-called Gentiles as well the first-called

First reading (Is 55: 6-9) explained: The prophet Isaiah reminds his people that if they really look at the circumstances of their lives they will recognize God’s hand in them. Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah record prophecies spoken about the end of the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judah, when they would return from enslavement to a devastated homeland.  The words were meant to give them Hope and to keep them from losing Faith in God.  The whole of Chapter 55 promises both material and spiritual relief.  Isaiah reminds the people that their years of ignoring their Covenant with God had brought their world crashing down around them, leaving their cities destroyed, their Temple razed, their wealth pillaged and their hopes dashed.  But because of God’s great love and mercy, His chosen people were to be forgiven.  They would return home, their land would be restored to them and their relationship with God would be reestablished.

Isaiah reminds us that the God of Moses and of the prophets doesn't think in the same way that we do.  God is more merciful than we are and more forgiving.  As Isaiah reports, “’My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord.”  Perhaps we would have a better world if we were to adopt some of God’s ways instead of asking questions like, "Why should the innocent suffer?" or "Why should cruel tyrants live and prosper?" or "Why should there be natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina?” Our Faith teaches us that, as a loving Father, God acts only for our good.  God is always near to us in this life, and if we remain near to Him on this earth, we can trust in His love and goodness to keep us near Him forever in Heaven.

The second reading (Philippians 1: 20-24, 27) explained: St. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians either from a prison cell in Rome (AD 61-63), or possibly from Ephesus (AD 56).  Paul was a latecomer in God’s vineyard, preaching the Gospel.  But he worked with zeal and interest to spread God's News of Redemption and Salvation for all.  Philippi was a very privileged city of Macedonia and the site of the first Christian church in Europe.  Although far from Rome, it was given the status of a Roman city.  Its people didn’t have to pay taxes to Rome and the people dressed as Romans and spoke the language of Rome.  But Paul had told them that once they became followers of Jesus, their true citizenship was not in Rome, but in Heaven.  Their ways were not to be Roman ways, but the way of the Gospel.  The Philippians had received the Gospel from Paul eagerly, and they supported him on his further missionary travels.  So he was very grateful, and his epistle gives them mature Pauline thought for a mature community, expressed in unusually personal terms.  

Today’s passage is most intimate, indicating another difference between God’s perspective and ours. Paul is trying to decide whether to prefer death (if he was in prison, he possibly faced execution), or life.  In this reading, Paul speaks as one who has put on the mind of Christ.  He says that he does not know whether he prefers to live or to die.  The ordinary human point of view is one that greatly prefers life to death.  But the perspective of God is different.  Paul says that to die would be good because it would bring him into greater unity with Christ.  On the other hand, to live would also be good because it would allow Paul to continue his work as an apostle.  Having taken on the perspective of God, Paul is equally ready to live or die.  Paul is an example of how grace operates.  His own wishes are subordinated to the needs of the Philippians, and both Paul and the Philippians enjoy the privilege of believing in Christ and of suffering for him.  Being a Christian means accepting God’s word without explanation or justification.  That is how “we conduct ourselves worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”

Gospel Exegesis: The parable described in today’s Gospel is known as “the Parable of Workers in the Vineyard” or “the Parable of the Generous Landlord.”  This remarkable and rather startling parable is found only in Matthew.  It reminds us that although God owes us nothing, He gives abundantly and equally.

The parable in a nutshell: The Kingdom of Heaven, says Jesus, is like landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  He rounds up a group at 6 AM, agrees to pay them the usual daily wage and then puts them into action.  At nine AM, he rounds up another group.  At noon, he recruits a third team, and then at three o'clock, a fourth.  Finally, at 5 PM, he finds still more laborers who are willing and able to work.  He sends them into the vineyard to do what they can before sundown.  As the day ends, the landowner instructs his manager to pay one denarius each, the living daily wage, to all the workers, beginning with those who started at five in the afternoon.

(A) Aim of the parable: 1) To give a warning to the disciples: Jesus teaches his disciples not to claim any special honor or any special place because they are closely associated with him or because they are the first members of his Church.  All the people, no matter when they come, are equally precious to God. Similarly, long-time Church members should expect no special preference over recent members.  (2) To give a definite warning to the Jews.  Jesus warns them that the Gentiles who put their Faith in God will have the same reward a good Jew may expect.  Matthew, by retelling this parable, may well desire to give the same warning to the members of his Judeo-Christian community who considered the Gentile Christians as second-class Christians.  (3) To give Jesus’ own explanation of His love for the publicans and sinners.  Through this parable, Jesus describes the loving concern, generosity and mercy of God his Father for all His children, all of which Jesus reflects in his life.

(B) Why this strange type of recruiting? The grapes ripened towards the end of September. It was the monsoon time of heavy rains.  If the harvest were not finished before the rains started, the crop would be ruined.  Hence, the vineyard owners recruited everyone willing to work, from the market place.  The fact that some of them stood around until even 5 PM proves how desperately they wanted to support their families.  One denarius or a drachma was the normal day's wage for a working man for his work from 6 AM to 6 PM.

(C) The seemingly unjust remuneration for work: This story illustrates the difference between God's perspective and ours.  Perhaps it disturbs our sense of fairness and justice.  Our sense of justice seems to favor the laborers who worked all day and expected a wage greater than that given to the latecomers.  Perhaps most people would sympathize with the workers who had worked longer and seemingly deserved more.  We can understand their complaint since, for most of us, salaries are linked to the number of hours of work.  A skilled worker gets more than an unskilled worker.  If workers have the same skills, the same hours of work and similar responsibilities, we expect them to get the same wages. 

 But God doesn’t see matters in the same way that we do.  God thinks of justice in terms of people’s dignity and their right to a decent life.  In other words, God's perspective is that of the owner, who gave some of the laborers more than they earned.  God’s justice holds that the people who have come late have the same right to a living wage and decent life as those who have worked all day and, hence, all must be treated identically. We are actually laborers who have worked less than a full day.  If God treated us justly, none of us would be rewarded.  We have all been unfaithful to God in many ways; what we have earned from God is punishment.  However, because God is generous rather than just, we all receive a full day's pay, even though we have not earned it. Jesus understood the value of all people, regardless of what the community thought of them.  He gave all people equal value.  Hence, our challenge is to recognize and accept with gratitude God’s Amazing Grace.   We must remember that there is more to life than the logic of action and reward.  There is the generosity of Life, that is, of the Trinitarian God, who has made us His co-workers on this Earth of His.  

(D) The parable’s teaching on the grace of God.

This parable of the vineyard-workers illustrates very well our theology of grace and mercy. Pope Francis says: “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” The parable suggests that we can't work our way into Heaven because by our own unaided strength we can never do enough good in this life to earn our everlasting reward. That is why God expects us to cooperate with His grace for doing good and avoiding evil. Salvation comes to us by God’s grace and our cooperation with it, that is, by a blend of Faith and works. We are saved by receiving and using God's gifts of Faith, Hope, and Charity.  At the same time, we are all in need of God's grace and forgiveness. Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to His call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the Divine Nature and of eternal life (CCC #1996). In God’s Kingdom, we can be grateful that He chooses to be generous.  What we really deserve for our sins is death.  We learn also that in God's service we have different tasks to perform.  No matter how menial the task, however, we all get paid the same amount.  In God's eyes, we are all equal.  At the end of the day, we are all paid the right amount.  In the Church, we're all co-workers, and, hence, we all receive exactly what is right from a God Who is notoriously generous and lavish.

The paradox of grace: What really bothers us in the parable is God’s equal rewarding of latecomers and newcomers. We are tempted to ask the question "Is it fair that we, the hard-working Christians, are going to be treated like these workers?  Is the man who lives a life of sin but who converts on his deathbed going to get the same reward that we receive?  Surely we must warrant at least a higher ranking in heaven on a cloud with the Apostle Paul or Moses or one of the saints!”  But the parable tells us that our Heavenly reward is not something we earn but rather a free gift.  God has made His rewards available to all through Faith in Christ Jesus.  Is it fair that God gives his grace to all?  Fair is the wrong word.  God does not deal with us “fairly” and it is a good thing!  We should be thankful God does not give us what we deserve.  The word we are looking for is grace.  The question should be "What is grace?"  And the answer is, it is that "undeserved love" that God has shown us through the death and Resurrection of His only Son Jesus Christ. Robert Browning reminds us, "All service ranks the same with God: With God, whose puppets, best and worst, are we; there is no last or first.” It is not the amount of service given, but the love with which it is given which matters. Those who carry out the will of God with love and humility will be acceptable before the Lord. So, Jesus says, “The first will be the last and the last will be the first.”

Life messages: (1) We need to follow God’s example and show grace to our neighbor.  When someone else is more successful than we are, let us assume he needs it.  When someone who does wrong fails to get caught, let us remember the many times we have done wrong and gotten off free. We must not wish pain on people for the sake of fairness.  We become envious of others because of our lack of generosity of heart.  Envy should have no place in our lives.  We cannot control the way God blesses others, only rejoice that He does so, just as He blesses us.

(2) We need to express our gratitude to God in our daily lives.  God personally calls each of us to our own ministry and shows us His care by giving us His grace and eternal salvation.  To God, we are more than just numbers on a payroll.  Our call to God’s vineyard is a free gift from God for which we can never be sufficiently thankful. All our talents and blessings are freely given by God. Hence, we should express our gratitude to God by avoiding sins, by rendering loving service to others, by sharing our blessings with the needy, and by constant prayer, listening and talking to God at all times.

3) We need to practice generosity: We can be generous in the way we give a person encouragement and a kind word when they are feeling down even though that person might not be one of our best buddies. We can be generous in the way we give of our time to help someone going through a rough patch. When someone says something that offends us, we can be generous in our reaction and sympathize, understand and, rather than give back the hostility or injury just as it was given to us. When we have fallen out with someone or believe we have been unfairly treated, we can be generous in our willingness to reach out, make amends and restore friendships. When someone really annoys us and gets under our skin, we can be generous with our patience and kindness and deal with that person in a way that reflects the generous nature of God. When we see people who lack the bare necessities needed for a happy and healthy life we need to be generous with what we have been given by our generous God. (Fr. Antony Kadavil). 

18/09/2017 12:25