Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
Today’s first reading is a familiar extract from Second Isaiah. The inspired insights of this anonymous prophet are recorded in chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah. Internal evidence of these chapters indicates that they were written in the years during and just after the Babylonian Exile (c.550-539 B.C.). The prophet mentions Cyrus, king of Persia, as the agent of God and the saviour of the exiled community. It was Cyrus who conquered the Babylonians in 539 B.C. and allowed the Jewish exiles in Babylon to go back home. The prophet refers to Cyrus as God’s anointed one, that is, messiah.
The prophet is addressing the exiled community and the whole tenor of his prophecy is governed by the message of hope for deliverance. The prophet assures his community that God has not abandoned them and that they will be restored to their former status if they remain faithful to their God. He urges his people to seek God who is transcendent yet ever near.
The prophet exalts the mercy of God who is always ready to forgive and whose benevolence is not subject to human understanding.
God’s mystical ways can never be fathomed by puny human minds. In the language of the Hebrew poets, the divine thoughts and ways are as far above human ways as the heavens are above the earth. The good part of this realisation is that the goodness of the Lord does not have to follow any human logic but operates out of infinite compassion and unpredictable kindness.
All that is needed is firm trust in divine graciousness
The responsorial psalm reinforces the words of the prophet and gives praise to the compassion of God. The psalm is an acrostic which means that each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This is an artistic literary device in ancient Hebrew poetry. Rabbi Eleazar ben Abina, one of the leading rabbis of the 4th century, maintained that pious Jews who recited this psalm three times each day would be granted a place in the world to come. It is recited three times a day in the synagogue prayer service.
The psalmist declares that God is full of compassion and love in every way. The Lord’s deeds in favour of Israel are evidence enough of God’s closeness to those who call on the Name. All that is required for people to benefit from the compassion of God is that they turn in sincerity with firm trust in divine graciousness.
Paul writes his letter to the Christian community as a prisoner. This was probably in the late 50s or early 60s of the first century. The evidence seems to suggest that Paul is under some kind of house arrest and is not exactly rotting in a dungeon. This kind of arrest usually meant that the arrested party was chained to a Roman soldier. Paul takes comfort from the fact that the word of God is spreading under the impetus and enthusiasm of the Philippian community.
For me living is Christ
In this extract Paul gives expression to the spiritual concept that motivated his whole life, namely, that living is belonging to Jesus Christ. Quality life means sustaining and living out one’s commitment to Christ. Paul knows that he might be condemned for his missionary work for Christ and pay for his apostleship with his life. His reaction is that he would willingly give his life if it meant being completely united with Christ. On the other hand, he would wish to stay alive in order to continue his work with his communities, spreading the good news that ultimate union with God can be had through being part of the body of Christ. Paul wishes to continue putting all his energy into winning people for his Lord and wants to carry on his pastoral ministry for the sake of his communities.
His final exhortation to the Philippians is that they conduct themselves in their daily lives in a way that is in harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Paul makes the same recommendation in all his letters urging his communities to live according to the Spirit and not according to selfish motives or human instinct.
Today’s gospel is a continuation of the readings from Matthew’s gospel and contains Jesus’ parable of the day labourers in the vineyard. In Middle Eastern towns employers would go to the town square to hire day labourers. They were often taken advantage of and would be obliged to accept whatever the employer was prepared to pay. It is interesting to note that similar practices still take place in some parts of the Middle East even today. I remember seeing Palestinian men gathering before dawn in a vacant square in Jerusalem just down from the Damascus Gate. Employers would drive up in their utes and take whoever was willing to do the work they nominated, generally unskilled labour. By around 7.30 am the square would be empty of workers. In Jesus’ story, the employer needs workers for his vineyard at different hours of the day and so goes back to the town square to hire more as required.
All workers had received the agreed-upon wage
A key detail in this story of Jesus is that the employer negotiated a wage with all those he hired and in the end paid them all the agreed wage for the day. Most of us at first reading would tend to agree with those workers who had laboured all day. These men grizzled because those who had worked only one hour received the same money as they did. Yet the employer insisted that all workers had received the agreed-upon wage. So, justice was done. However, the parable shows up the generosity of the employer who on that day chose to pay everyone the same wage. This may represent extraordinary generosity, which the early workers have great difficulty accepting, but it also shows up the sense of responsibility shown by the landowner. Ever notice there is often an unlikely twist in the parables of Jesus, e.g., a king cancels an enormous debt, a rich man has his servants bring the beggars off the street into his banquet, a Samaritan rescues a Jew who had been assaulted and robbed.
This parable occurs only in Matthew’s gospel and like all the parables is open to many levels of meaning.
One meaning is that the community of Matthew, which consisted largely of Jewish converts, is getting the message that Gentile converts are entitled to be part of the reign of God.
The Jewish majority in Matthew’s community saw the Gentiles as the Johnny-come-lately people to the community of Jesus Christ, and for Jews of the time of Christ Gentiles were considered to be unclean and unworthy. The message here is that the Gentiles who commit themselves to Christ have been offered the same spiritual gifts of oneness with God.
This parable prompts us to value justice and practise generosity
Another level of meaning is that the first disciples may believe they have prior rights because of their early conversion to Christ. Jesus is saying that no one has any rights in God’s world.
All that God offers is gratuitously given; nothing is deserved.
Membership of the reign of God depends on divine generosity and our correspondence with it; the gift is offered and we sign on to it with commitment.
In short, if the landowner pays everyone a living wage and the workers can accept that he has been fair rather than complain about what they thought should have been a fair outcome, then the message is that each worker goes away with enough to feed his family. Jesus is pragmatic enough to acknowledge that there are differences in human society. Some are born poor, others rich. Different social classes have different levels of privilege and material goods. Jesus was not an egalitarian in the way we understand that term today, but he did treat everybody equally and maintained that everybody has a right to have enough. People of lower classes deserve to be content and secure with enough. People of wealth and rank have a responsibility to be just in their dealings with others. The disturbing nature of this parable warns us to be wary of excess and prompts us all to value justice and practise generosity out of respect for others.
Have you ever noticed how generous people are happy people with a positive outlook? There is no lasting contentment in having or acquiring when its focus is self. The generous heart looks outside self and rejoices in open relationships where there is nothing to hide and no territory to protect. Generous hearts rejoice when others share their contentment.
You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you. John Bunyan (17th century English writer and preacher; author of The Pilgrim’s Progress.)
Every sunrise is an invitation for us to arise and brighten someone's day. Richelle Goodrich (American inspirational writer)
Sarah watches as her mother tries on an expensive coat in a high-end department store. ‘Do you realise,’ Sarah says, ‘that some poor dumb animal had to suffer just so you could wear that coat?’
Sarah’s mother turns to her and snaps, ‘Think about how much I’ve suffered! And don’t call your father a dumb animal.’