Theme: God’s Justice
The major theme running through the Bible is ‘justice’. God is wholly just and we are invited to be instruments of justice. Yet the question is; what do we mean by justice? Some straight answers to these questions can be found in today’s liturgy. To comprehend God’s justice we are called to do some adjustments in our normal ways of thinking. When we cool down and start to trust in the grace of God, we shall realize that He is very near to us than we can imagine. What we have to take caution about is the acceptance that God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are far beyond ours. In the words of the ancient psalmists, we have reason to celebrate because: “the Lord is gracious and merciful; the Lord is near to all who call... the Lord never treats us as our guilt and our sins deserve... so great is his love” Psalms. 145. Indeed, it is true that God is not fair because God is love!
First reading: Isaiah 55:6-9
It may help us to start reflecting on the first reading by imagining the thoughts of God when he is dealing with humanity. When we approach God for a second, he approaches us with a minute, when we approach to him for an hour; he approaches us with a day. When we approach him walking, he will come to us running, and when we meets him with our sins equivalent to the whole world, He will greet us with forgiveness equal to it. Prophet Isaiah offers us a similarly comforting image of God. Despite the political crisis they had weathered, when Jerusalem was destroyed and thousands of Jews were sent on a forced march to Babylonia, Prophet Isaiah kept his community in exile vividly aware of God’s presence.
At first Isaiah interpreted the experience of the exile as a well-earned punishment for infidelity to the covenant. But despite the deserved punishment, God’s presence also afforded consolation, renewal and the hope of a new beginning. The Jewish exiles had only to seek and call upon God and, forsaking their wicked ways and would find that God was ever near with forgiveness in abundance. Isaiah also helped his people to recognize God’s hand at work on their behalf in the ascendancy to power of Cyrus the Persian. Earlier in his prophecies, he had described Cyrus as a “bird of prey” Isaiah 46:11 called by God to carry out his purpose for his people. Cyrus’ victory over Babylonian and his policy of setting free all the foreign exiles enslaved in Babylonia also earned him the title of God’s anointed/messiah cf. Isaiah 45:1. For Isaiah and his fellow Jews, Cyrus’ success was yet another instance of the restorative, reconciling presence of God among them.
Second reading: Philippians 1:20-24, 27
Paul wrote to the Church in Philippi, his personal circumstances were not ideal. Imprisoned in Ephesus on the way to Rome; he realized that his imprisonment might result in his execution and he wished to communicate his final recommendation to those whom he had brought to the faith. Paul had established the Christian community at Philippi during his second missionary journey about year 50 AD. Because of its strategic location acting as his first base of operations in Europe of that time, Paul wrote at least three letters in order to preserve and maintain the integrity of the Gospel as he had preached it and as the Philippians were trying to live it. What has survived of these letters has been amalgamated into one piece of correspondence. We can distinguish: 1-Letter A or Philippians 4:10-20 as Paul’s initial letter. The Christians from Philippi had sent him a gift of money via Epaphroditus and Paul wrote to thank them; 2-Letter B or Philippians 1:1-3:1a; 4:4-7, 21-23 as Paul’s second piece of correspondence. Epaphroditus had been ill but had recovered and would soon return to Philippi. Paul sent a message along with him to encourage Philippians not to be deterred by antagonism from non-Christians as noted in Philippians 1:28-30, but to grow more firmly united as a community in Christ; 3-Letter C or Philippians 3:1b- 4:3, 8-9; here Paul warned the community against Judaizers who were an ultra-conservative Christian missionary group intent upon making gentiles adopt Jewish practices like circumcision and food regulations as a condition to become Christian. Aware of this, the Christian community in Philippi remained calm and unperturbed.
What we are reflecting on today is from Letter B which Paul began with a formal greeting and blessing in Philippians 1:1-2, a prayer of thanksgiving in Philippians 1:3-11 and then the news of his own situation in Philippians 1:12-26. Because of his unshakable faith in Christ and in the resurrection, Paul did not fear death. In fact, he welcomed it as a passage to a deeper, fuller experience of Christ’s presence. Paul also realized that in life there was an opportunity for him to continue offering service to the gospel.
He shared his ambivalence with the Philippians saying, “I do not know which to prefer; I am strongly attracted to both” Philippians 1: 22-23. More literally Paul had actually written that I am caught in a dilemma. The Greek word is senechomai/caught/hard pressed which described someone caught in a narrow passage with a wall of rock in either side. Unable to turn around, the traveler could do nothing else but press forward. This was his resolve; to move forward accepting whatever future his work for Christ and the Church would bring. Whether it be death or continued life, Paul was at peace. He invited Philippians to cultivate a similar outlook toward life and death and to know a similar peace. To achieve this level, they needed prayer as the best dynamic to reach resolve.
To practice prayer we have to create a non-negotiable place and time for it. Imagine some of us can go to a movie and spend an entire afternoon looking at the big screen, we can spend hours on the football pitch chasing that leather air pumped object. All God wants from us is time. The Common excuse is, ‘Lord, you know how I would love to spend time with you in prayer but I am so busy doing good things for you, you know’ and we forget that God can get lots of other ways to get good things done. It is important to remember that we can not substitute anything for time with God.
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
A parable unique to the Matthew’s gospel, today’s gospel never fails to tweak its listeners with the seemingly unfair situation it depicts. The interaction between the vineyard owner and the workers offer an affront to those sensibilities which lean more toward human standards than toward the ways and thoughts of God. If the fact that the workers hired at the eleventh hour received the same wage as those hired first still rests uneasy in the heart of the listener, then the parable’s challenge remains timely and important. At the first glance, the parable may seem unbelievable. What employer would go in search of employees not once, but five times in one day?! Actually, the parable is more realistic than it appears. In ancient Palestine, grapes ripened in late September not long before the autumn rains. In order to gather the entire crop before the rain ruined it, frantic efforts and every available work was needed even if they could only work a short time as little as one hour!
This parable should be appreciated with regard for its various levels of development. The initial level defends Jesus’ missionary methodology of reaching out to tax collectors and sinners whereas his contemporaries believed these to be outsiders with no claim to salvation. Jesus goes forth to search for all of them. At its second level, the parable clarifies that even gentiles who came ‘late’ to the good news of salvation would enjoy the same benefits like the Jews. The third level concerns the reversal of fortunes that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” Matthew 20:16, a great lesson in discipleship. Christians are not to concern themselves with recompense for their service in the cause of the kingdom; nor presume to measure out what others deserve for the services they have rendered because human standards of fairness have little space in front of God. Each and all are rewarded abundantly. If God were fair in a strictly human sense, precisely a few, if any, would live to enjoy the kingdom. The other consideration is that when it comes to buying bread, the coast is the same for the rich and poor, for the strong and the weak. For the survival of all, God opts to treat them equally when remunerating them for the job done. The Gospel calls us to the vineyard which is the Church. This is God’s gift of faith through baptism, for which we can never sufficiently thank God. If we remain in the vineyard and labor honestly, God will continually provide us with our needs.
Looking back on our past life, how many years have we really given to God since we came to the use of reason? Those school years, the time spent learning a trade or profession, the years working in an office, the hours among the pots and pans in the kitchen; have we earned some credit in heaven for all of this, or is it all crossed off our pay sheet through lack of right intention? If so, those years are lost to us. Were we ‘idle’ all that time? Today’s parable gives us new hope and courage. It may be the sixth or the ninth or even the eleventh hour of our life but we can still earn heaven if we listen to God’s call and set to work diligently in His vineyard. If we put our conscience right with God today and resolve to be loyal to Him from now on He will be as generous to us, as the parable promises.