25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
September 20, 2020
Parable Ever New
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is not a lesson in labor relations. Today’s labor experts might tell us that the landowner should have paid more to those who worked in his vineyard from sunup to sunset, whereas he should have paid less to those who worked in the vineyard only an hour. It is therefore likely that the Lord had something else in mind when he told this story. But what, exactly, is the Lord trying to teach us in this parable? Let’s find out by “unpacking” Jesus’ story, so that we may apply it to ourselves, as 21st century followers of Christ and as members of his Church.
The Dramatis Personae and the Setting
As you recall, the principal actor in Jesus’ parable is “the landowner”, that is to say, the one who owns and sustains a large and fertile vineyard. The landowner, of course, refers to God, the Heavenly Father, who sent his Son into the world to establish his vineyard, his kingdom, among us. The Owner wants his vineyard to take root in the world, to grow and to prosper. The remaining actors in this parable are the day laborers in the marketplace, and they stand for us, who find ourselves milling about our usual haunts.
This brings us to the settings of Jesus’ parable: the marketplace and a vineyard. The marketplace represent our every-day existence. It’s where we live, where we work, where we socialize. In this story, however, the marketplace may also stand for those places in our lives where we marginalize God or put God in brackets or keep him at arm’s length. It is from this “marketplace” that God chooses laborers for his vineyard.
Now, his vineyard, as noted above, represents the kingdom of heaven which Jesus personified and introduced into the world: that ‘kingdom of truth and life, holiness and grace, justice, love, and peace’ (Cf. Pref., Christ the King) that kingdom for which Jesus taught us to pray, in the Our Father. God’s kingdom remains present and active in the world today through the Church, and we are called, each of us, to labor in this vineyard while we have life and breath. But where, exactly, is this vineyard located? Where is the soil we are supposed to till? Surely it is in our local churches, in our parishes, and in our various ministries, but this vineyard is also found in our homes and families, among our colleagues and friends, and especially in our own hearts, the soil of which every follower of Christ must till with the grace that comes from God.
The Landowner and the Laborers
As the parable unfolds, it seems clear that, so long as we make ourselves available to him, the Father will hire us in a heartbeat to cultivate his vineyard, whether we are very young, or very old, or somewhere in-between. So, while we are going about the ordinary, everyday business of our lives, the Lord is looking to enlist us to be laborers for his abundant harvest – for, “the harvest is great but the laborers are few”.
Now, the Lord may enlist some for full time service to the Church, as a member of the clergy, or as a religious, or as a Catholic educator, or as a catechist, or as an agent of healing and mercy in Catholic healthcare or Catholic charities. And we should be grateful to so many who work so selflessly for God and for us. But even if we do not have a specific or an “official” ministry in the Church, we are nonetheless called to labor in the vineyard of the Lord. For, as I have already said, we find the Lord’s vineyard in our homes and families, where, with spouses and children, we need to cultivate the soil of faith and virtue; among colleagues and friends before whom we are to bear witness to the Lord’s love; and finally, the Lord’s vineyard is in our hearts whose soil we are called to cultivate, learning day by day to “conduct [ourselves] in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”
So, the Lord calls each us to labor in his vineyard on behalf of his kingdom. Note that he searches for laborers as long as there is daylight, that is to say, at every stage of our lives, from our youth to our advancing years. Thus, some respond at the dawn of life to the Lord’s call to work in his vineyard. Think of the young saints, who labored for the Lord and laid down their lives for him, like St. Cecilia, who, in the 2nd century, suffered martyred at a tender age, or like the 17th century Filipino saint, Pedro Calungsod, who, as a teenager become a catechist and missionary, and ultimately died a martyr. Others respond to their call later in life. For example, among the 53 seminarians studying for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, some are younger, just out of high school, and others have completed college, while still others have run businesses or worked in the corporate world. I think of people I know who heard the call to conversion toward the end of their lives. They may have come ‘late to the game’ but in God’s grace, they often make up for lost time, giving themselves wholly to God. Let us take comfort: as long as there is life and breath, it is never too late to turn towards the Lord and to work in his grace for the reward of eternal life. But let’s also heed the call of Isaiah the prophet, “Seek the Lord while he may be found!”
Let me add two brief points and then wrap up. You will remember that some in the marketplace were idle, even as the day wore on and the sun was beginning to set. We may say to ourselves, “I am surely not idle – I could not be busier!” It seems to me, though, that this isn’t the sort of idleness Jesus had in mind. We may be frenetically busy, but spiritually idle, and I can speak of this personally. It is easy for me to be so preoccupied with the problems of Church administration that I lose sight of the fact that Lord has called me first and foremost to till the soil of his vineyard by preaching the Gospel, celebrating the Sacraments, serving God’s people in wisdom and love, and growing in personal holiness. From time to time, I must remind myself of what St. Thérèse of Lisieux once said: “Unless I am becoming a saint, I am doing nothing.”
The Daily Wage
A final feature of Jesus’ parable is the “usual daily wage” which the landowner paid to his laborers, whether their hours were long or short. Back then, the usual daily wage was a modest sum, a denarius, a Roman coin upon which was engraved an image of the Roman emperor. Actually, the Lord does not reward us with silver or gold. Rather, the Lord, through the Spirit, engraves upon our souls his own glorious image. Thus, our reward for working in his vineyard, whether long or short term, is a sharing in the holiness and goodness and glory of Christ himself, indeed a participation in the life and love of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What should be clear to you and me by now, is God’s immense generosity in inviting us to work in his vineyard and in rewarding us so extravagantly. In his kingdom, there is no room for envy of the heavenly recompense that God bestows upon latecomers, those who responded to God’s call late in life. On the contrary, in heaven there is joy over every repentant sinner. In God’s kingdom we are to account it a joy and privilege to labor in the vineyard and we are to rejoice in and work for the spiritual good of one another, as fellow disciples of Christ and members of his Body the Church. When we labor generously and lovingly for the Lord and for one another, without counting the cost and without imagining that we are earning our reward, then it is that the Kingdom of God has dawned upon us! God bless us and keep us!