Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Philippians 1:20-24, 27
The gospel for this twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time is frequently referred to as the Parable of the Generous Landlord. Most of us, after hearing the gospel proclaimed, might be more inclined to call it the Parable of the Outrageously Foolish Landlord, or the Parable of the Fiscally Irresponsible Landlord, or even the Parable of the Unjust Landlord. Yes, so jarring are the details of this uniquely Matthean parable that we might actually view the landlord as unjust – he didn’t pay each worker what he was due, for some worked a full day while others worked but a few hours! Who would pay all of the workers a full day’s wage? Who would do such a thing? The answer to that question is simple – God would!
As so often happens in our Sunday liturgies, the Old (the First) Testament reading sets the stage and gives us a context with which to view the gospel. Isaiah is speaking to the people of the Babylonian Exile, people who had suffered the pain of being separated from all that they knew and loved, and Isaiah reminds them that no matter how much they deserved that punishment on account of their sinfulness, their God was a God of mercy, “generous in forgiving.” As the Psalmist enforces, their God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and rich in kindness. The Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all. (Psalm 145:8-9)”. Knowing how far they had strayed from the ways of God, the Jewish people could not imagine a God looking at them benevolently, could not imagine a God who would restore their homeland and shower them with mercy. But the God of Isaiah was just such a God, and the chosen people could be assured that God would not only not abandon them, but he would also forgive his people. They would return home, their land would be restored to them and their relationship with God would be reestablished.
It is this God who is the landowner in Matthew’s parable. Matthew’s gospel was written for the Jewish people, for people who were convinced of their “chosen” status. They were not terribly interested in sharing their God with Gentiles, let alone tax collectors and sinners. They were considered to be the “Johnny-come-latelies,” they hadn’t paid their dues or worked a full day. The Jewish listeners to Jesus’ parable saw themselves as those had agreed to “the usual daily wage” at the start of the workday – “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” The details of the parable heighten the grounds for outrage, for the workers first hired were the last paid. They were forced to witness the landowner’s unexpected largess, and they no doubt expected that if those who worked so little got so much they would surely get more. That just wasn’t the way things work in God’s Kingdom!
Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s gospel is the perfect of parables, for it compels the listeners to confront who God is and what justice is all about in God’s kingdom. There is no room in the Kingdom for strictly retributive justice, for God’s ways are not our ways. God’s generosity and mercy cannot be confined or controlled by fiscally responsible expectations, for the God revealed to us by Jesus in his parables and in his teachings is a God who is so much greater than we can possibly imagine. Our God is “free to do” as God pleases with his mercy, and compassion, and generosity, and forgiveness. Regardless of whether we have been faithful our entire life, or whether we have turned to God before our last breath, God is quick to offer us the blessings of His Kingdom.
Finally, notice how frequently the landowner goes out to hire workers. Five times, at all moments of the day, the landowner is inviting people to be involved in his work. That, too, is who God is. God never stops inviting, never stops reaching out to those who are eager to work or to those who think they are more content to stand on the sidelines. We can never resent that outreach. All we are called to do is to be grateful, and, as Paul said to the Philippians, to “conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the gospel.” For in our striving to do that, we too will attract others to be part of that Kingdom, and they will have the opportunity to experience the overwhelmingly generous and extravagant love of that God who once invited us to work in his vineyard.