By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3,8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a
The first reading is from a part of the Book of Isaiah called Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. This unknown prophet’s oracles are found in Isaiah 40-55. He was active among the exiles in Babylon (Iraq) from the 540s B.C. to 538 B.C. His prophecies (oracles) are also called “The Book of Consolation.” It begins with that very theme: “Be consoled, my people! Be consoled, says your God.” The exile from Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah began in 598 B.C. when Jerusalem yielded to the Babylonian army. The main wave of exiles taken to Babylon was in 587-586 B.C., after the Kingdom of Judah had rebelled against Babylonian control. Jerusalem was conquered, and the temple of the Lord was destroyed. Second Isaiah’s consolation was aimed at the surviving exiles or their descendants. The prophet envisions a new Exodus, similar to the original Exodus from Egypt seven or eight centuries earlier under the leadership of Moses. This time, the Exodus would be from Babylon to what was left of Jerusalem, the former capital of the Kingdom of Judah.
At the time of Second Isaiah, Babylon had succumbed to the armies of Persia (Iran) under Cyrus the Great. He was an enlightened ruler who allowed exiled peoples to return to their homeland and rebuild their cities and temples to their gods. His motivation: that those gods would bless him. The Israelites had only the real God. They also were free to return to their homeland, and rebuild Jerusalem and the Lord’s temple. Just as Second Isaiah’s oracles began in consolation, so they also came to a close with assurances of consolation from the Lord God. Our first reading is the major part of his “Amen” to all the promises of hope. First, a warning to the exiles: “Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call him while you have his attention.” He urges scoundrels to forsake their way of life, to be rid of wicked thoughts, and to turn to a generous, merciful, forgiving God. How sure is the prophet that all this will go according to plan? Because the Lord is quite different than his human creatures: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.” A promise follows that should have been included in our reading: “Yes, you will leave with joy, and be led away in safety … and this will make the Lord famous.”
Psalm 145 is the appropriate response to the first reading. It echoes the prophet’s call to the Lord while he is near. Thus, the people’s response: “The Lord is near to all who call upon him.” The psalm is true to the human way of doing things. It opens with praise of the one from whom help is expected. The psalmist promises that he will praise the Lord, who is great, highly to be praised, whose greatness cannot be fathomed. As if that were not enough to get the Lord’s attention, he points out that the Lord is gracious, merciful, compassionate, does not have a hot temper, and is just and holy. How could any benefactor, even God, resist a request after such an appeal?
The second reading is a brief excerpt from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, a community he founded at Philippi in Greece on his first mission in Europe. After his work in Greece, he sailed back to the Asian mainland and settled in Ephesus in what is today southwest Turkey. In this letter, he informs them that he is in prison, bound in chains. He thinks that his suffering is for their benefit.
In our reading, he debates whether it is better to keep on living or to die. He doesn’t know which to choose: “I am caught between the two.” It would be easier to die, “yet that I remain in the flesh, is more necessary for your benefit.”
The parable of today’s gospel reading begins with an intro shared with many of Jesus’ parables, “The kingdom of heaven is like ….” None of our four gospels ever define exactly what that means, other than saying “is like,” something in the parable that follows. It can mean life eternal, the Church, the rule of God in our lives, etc. This time it is like a man who went out into the marketplace at dawn to hire day laborers for his vineyard. Although, in Jewish reckoning, the day began at sunset of the previous day, the hours were counted from sunrise. He hired at 6 and 9 a.m., at noon, and at 3 and 5 p.m. To the first, he promised a denarius a day, the standard daily wage at the time. To those hired later he promised to pay what is just. Evening came. It was time to pay. According to a law in Leviticus 19:13, an employer could not hold on to a day laborer’s wages, not even till the next morning. Payout began with the last hired instead of the first hired, to whom a denarius had been promised. Now, the first hired had to stand by and watch the latecomers receive the same amount for which they had worked all day. Oy Vey! They pointed out the unfairness of this arrangement. However, a parable does not have to follow our guidelines for labor and management relations.
The owner of the vineyard sounds like a clever lawyer. He reminded the first hired that they had contracted for a denarius a day. No doubt about it, he paid according to contract. The fact that those hired later received the same pay was due only to the generosity of the employer. They really had no case. The most likely setting for Jesus’ use of this parable: his critics often attacked him for associating with the people of the street, with those they considered sinners, the unclean. The parable served as an appeal to his critics that people who were different from them had just as much right to the mercy and love of God as they did. Matthew writes in the 80s of the first Christian century, probably from the major Christian community at Antioch in Syria. We know, from the letters of St. Paul and from Acts of Apostles, of the struggle faced by former pagans to be accepted as equals in that community and others. These Gentiles were the late and the last hired. Even though the Jewish Christians of long-standing deserved their pay, the employer, here representing God, decided to extend his mercy and love to Gentiles also.