In this beautiful homily for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Father Hanly shows us how the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which seems to us, at the beginning, unfair, goes beyond fair and into peace and into forgiveness and joy and hope for all mankind.
First Reading: Isaiah 55:6-9
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Second Reading: Philippians 1:20-24, 27
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
This is a gospel that causes most people, whoever have had to work for a living, a little bit of upset. And rightfully so.
When I was seventeen years old, I got out of the seminary to go home on my summer leave, which was three months in those days – three months off before I’d go back to the Venard. I was seventeen and it was my father’s idea, or rather it was his friend’s idea, that it would be good for me to get a summer job. And he picked one on a ship, on a T2 tanker.
A T2 tanker was a kind of a bucket of bolts at the time. We get super tankers now. But anyhow they used to bring me on board. They’d go down into South America and bring the oil back up. And that would be your summer vacation.
The reason I say that is I was made very much aware of what the shape-up was, the system of hiring workers who gather together in one place. And they’re hired – these are the daily workers – they’re hired according to whether your name is called out.
And I used to go down there very quickly, down to the hiring hall, and wait for my name, and wait for my name, and wait for my name. And, finally, my name would come up and then I would be given the papers for overseas, etc, etc, and then get on the ship. And I was the lowest form of worker on the ship: that was the one who cleaned the engines in the engine room.
I say all this because this was 1948, believe it or not, and the shape-up was a terrible way to try to make a living, because, you see, you go to a place like the union hall, or in Jesus’ day in the marketplace, and you let everyone there know that you are ready to work on a daily basis and, of course, they send men out to bring you and to see if you are willing.
Now very often they cheat you, you see. They say, “Well, if you give me $10 back, then I’ll call your name.” And (inaudible) we don’t have those anymore. But the shape-up was very painful if you were married and had children depending on the daily bread.
I’m introducing all of this because this story that Jesus tells is pretty much the same background, but there’s great differences.
And, of course, the first great difference is that the landowner…
Nobody in high authority ever went to a shape-up. They used to send whoever was around: “Get me twenty, twenty-five of these people.” It was like herds of cattle. And they were treated with no dignity.
But here’s the head of the house, the landowner, the one in charge, and he goes down and he looks for his own men in the marketplace.
It’s okay if you do that in the morning, say at dawn, and lead them back and show them what they have to do, but then he goes out at nine o’clock again, and then he goes out at noon, and then he goes out again in the afternoon. At five, he finally goes the last time at five. And then at six o’clock it gets dark, so the day is over. He’s been out five times.
What does that tell you about him?
It should tell you that he’s not in it for the money, and he’s not in it for the pride, and he’s not in it to show everybody that he’s a big man and he’s got plenty of power.
He’s in it because he loves workers. He understands them. He knows the kind of life, day by day, getting money or not getting money, getting food or not getting food, and to stand there and wait, and your heart sinks all through the day up until five o’clock at night and nobody comes.
But this man, he says, “Why are you standing all the day idle?” And they say, “Nobody will hire us.” And he hires them. Whether he needs them or not, he hires them and he brings them.
And that’s the first clue about this lovely little gospel.
Because Jesus wants you to know that the landowner is God. The landowner is God and His vineyard is very special. He sent His Son to do something extraordinary, which was to change the world. And the vineyard is the sign and the vineyard is the new world, the world that God Himself wants His Son to establish, wants His Son to bring people back to, because it is the original world where God was worshipped and all men lived in freedom and peace with each other. And, of course, men being men they destroyed it and made it what it is today.
If you understand that part, then you know it’s a lovely parable. Why? Because Matthew puts it in a very interesting way.
Do you notice the hours we’re told when he goes out?
Dawn, the time that the Jews gathered for prayer in the synagogue. Nine o’clock, when they come back from their chores and enter the holy place and pray. At noontime again, these are all the special times that a Jew takes his religion very seriously, must stop his work and pray, together with his fellow Jews, all the way up until nine o’clock at night. But also the hours of when they come together at twelve noon and they come together at three in the afternoon.
The monks today continue that kind of style when they are in monasteries and praying all day long. But the one at noon is when Jesus begins His terrible ordeal when He is condemned to death and led up the mountain. And he dies at three. And at five, Pilate sends out men to bury him.
So the writer is very, very clever. He’s saying it’s not just a story about hiring hands, it’s God preparing His garden, His garden that will be the new world.
And what is the new world? The new world will surprise us.
We say the gardener’s very unfair: he gives the people that came in at the end the same as he gives the people at the beginning. But the people at the beginning asked for that wage and He gave it to them. And so after that they began to know that everybody gets what He Himself wants to give them.
And what does He want to give them?
He wants to give them a new world, a new kind of living, a new value system, not based on fair or unfair, is it just or not just, but this man, this man is saying, “I only want to care for others, to love others, to go out to others, to bring them in, to wipe their tears, to take care of them. For these are not workers in a vineyard, these are the people who will people the new world that we together hope to accomplish.”
And, of course, that is what the world is. That is what, for a Christian, we come here and we pray.
And what is the other name that we call this ceremony that we go into?
It’s the Eucharist. And the name of the Eucharist is to give thanks. And that is, full stop, the meaning of our lives. We give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His love is everlasting.
And when we keep this in our mind and work during our day, no matter what we do, or how we work, or what comes up, what great sorrows or what great joys come up, we offer them up in gratitude to the God who comes out to search for us, to find us when we go off wandering in other directions, hiding sometimes from Him, and to bring us back to the vineyard, because everybody is welcome in the vineyard.
Is that just for Roman Catholics? Is that just for baptised people?
Of course not. God’s vineyard is for all the children of the world.
We understand it. We understand this parable. We know that God is in everyone, cares for everyone, is trying to achieve peace and happiness and joy through us for everyone.
And now this little parable becomes something very strong, for as long as we come together…
That’s why we come to church. We don’t come to church so we can go to heaven. We come to church because we are the children of God. We are the children of God, called to love, to reverse the paganism of our world, to reverse the terrible things that we do to each other, to be small lights but a light nonetheless in the darkness of a darkening world.
We’re not out for fame, we’re not out for money, we’re not out to teach our children to be better than everybody else and smarter than everybody. We’re out to be in the garden, the one who builds up with His Son, Jesus, this new world, bit by bit, day by day.
My final comment now is this: you notice, this is a very special parable and the beginning of the parable has been Jesus speaking of the new way and the new world which is, “If you come with me, I will make you fishers of men. If you come with me, I will teach you how to love as I love, how to care as I care, and how to change this world as my Son on the cross died.”
The very final word that Matthew puts: Jesus calls his disciples together — this is right after this parable I just read to you — Jesus calls his disciples together and he says to them, “This is how paradise will begin. We are going to Jerusalem and I will be arrested, I will be beaten, I will be nailed to the cross and I will die, but I will rise again.”
And then he looks at his disciples and they know what he’s saying: this is the way of the Lord, this is the road of the Lord. You cannot, I will not even let you continue to think that part of this following me is to take on the sorrows and the sadness, not only of your own little world but of the larger world as well, and continue to be as Jesus was. From the cross…
After he rose from the dead, he said, “I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. I will never leave you. I am with you whether you pray to me or don’t pray to me. But together, one with you, one with me, together, slowly, surely, with many mistakes, with many falls and getting up and walking once again forward, to what? To the world and in the world that God Himself has created, that God Himself gives the energy. And the energy is forgiveness, caring and love.”
And so this parable, it seems to us, at the beginning, unfair. It is unfair, because it goes beyond fair and into peace and into forgiveness and joy and hope for all mankind.