Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Rembrandt 1637, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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[The landowner said], am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? 
Are you envious because I am generous?’    Matthew 20:15.

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Last Sunday I mentioned that forgiveness runs like a golden thread through the gospels. There is another: generosity, beginning at the top: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And we are reminded that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). And on and on: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have…” (Hebrews 13:16). And so the message is clear, especially if you live in a wealthy country and are comfortably off. In fact, there is even another parable about that, Lazarus the beggar at the gate of the rich man who gave him nothing (Luke 16:20). And remember, even if you are poor, there is the story of the impoverished widow who gave her last penny to the Temple (Luke 21:1-4). So to be a good Christian is to be a generous person, and to do it joyfully! Today’s gospel underlines this teaching rather spectacularly. As a parable, there is an underlying reality represented by the elements in the story. The vineyard is the world, the workers, us, the payment at the end of the day, the heavenly reward, and the landowner, God. In any city, I imagine, it is not difficult to find groups of men hanging around on a street corner in a poorer part of the city, waiting to be hired for the day to do manual work. That is the setting for today’s parable. Although most of us will have a job, a career, a calling of some sort, we would not be used to hanging around hopefully in the early morning waiting to be hired. But in another sense, we might well be. It is the landowner who approaches the laborers and enquires why they are hanging around. He then invites them to work in his vineyard. Wouldn’t that be God asking our souls why they are hanging around doing nothing, slowly starving for spiritual nourishment? The ones who are hanging around later in the day might be those who have tried various spiritual adventures, and have found them all lacking. To work for the landowner in his vineyard is the vocation they have been after all their lives, and at last here it is. They remain there, and receive their rewards. It was the answer to their hopes and prayers. “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near” says today’s first reading. St. Paul says “If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” in the second reading. So the message is pretty clear. We work for the Lord, we happily share what we earn, and we anticipate a generous welcome when our days are done. 

And then there are the others in the parable: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” I think it is pretty easy to understand the outrage of those workers who have slaved since dawn and received the identical wage as those who joined them an hour or so before the day ended. Surely they should receive more? The landowner, with clear logic, explains they all agreed to the wage offered; he was happy to give that to everyone; where’s the problem? (Some scholars point out that a full day’s wage was necessary for everyone so that they could feed their families). He also asks if they are upset at his generosity…. Clearly, yes they are. I am reminded now of the criminal crucified alongside the Lord, who understood why he was so barbarically punished, who asked forgiveness for his sins, which the Lord readily gave, and he entered paradise that day. There is the other Scriptural message which states, “…there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:10), or should we say “who think they do not need to repent…”? It is very easy to justify lack of generosity in troubled times, and to forget that story of the widow’s mite….

So we are called to help others, the practical side of loving one’s neighbor, in obedience to God’s call. Generosity is the measurable way, as it were, to estimate how good we are at being Christian. As Catholics, be aware of the research which states we are among the least generous of Christians, and this from research conducted at Notre Dame University! So today we are all called to a brutal self-examination of where we stand in light of today’s gospel. How practical in fact are we in living out the Number One Rule: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Pretty clear.


Heaven’s Balcony, Ron DiCianni 2003, ChristCenteredMall

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.

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