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 an excerpt from the closing chapter of that part of the Book of Isaiah called “Second Isaiah.” His work is embodied in chapters 40-55 of the collections of oracles of three prophets assembled by editors into the Book of Isaiah. The years of his ministry are approximately 550-538 B.C. Though First Isaiah, chapters 1-9 and Third or Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66 are situated in Jerusalem before and after the exile, Second or Deutero-Isaiah is with the Israelite/Jewish exiles in Babylon (today Iraq) which later became part of the Empire of Persia. The collection of Second Isaiah’s oracles is called “The Book of Consolation” because it begins with the consoling words, “Be comforted, be comforted, My People, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry out to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned . . . .” The prophet is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple of the Lord in 587-586 B.C. The exile followed the destruction. Second Isaiah envisions a new Exodus, not the old Exodus from Egypt in the 13th century B.C. under Moses’ leadership. The new Exodus would be an Exodus from Babylon, a return to Jerusalem and what had been the Kingdom of Judah.
The prophet turned out to be quite correct. The Empire of Babylon was past its zenith. The people it ruled were weary of their rulers. The Persians (today Iran) were growing in power under Cyrus (Koresh) the Great. After Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C., he followed his usual policy of allowing captive and exiled people and nations to return to their homelands and especially to rebuild the temples to their gods. His reasoning: so that those gods would bless him. Second Isaiah expresses these significant events in Hebrew poetry, frequently in superlative language, which may have been more glorious than the situation on the ground. In this closing chapter of his oracles (our first reading), he gives this people guidelines to purify them for their return to Judea. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” or “Carpe diem!” Seize this opportunity. “Call him while he is near.” Cheating crooks are asked to forsake their way of life and turn to God for mercy, a God who forgives generously. There was opposition to the prophet, deadly opposition from his own people. This oracle can be directed at them, speaking for the Lord, “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Nor are my ways your ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
The Responsorial Psalm 145 expands from the first reading the words, “Call the Lord while he is near.” The Psalmist sings, “The Lord is near to all who call upon him.” While Second Isaiah is speaking of the Lord’s mercy in bringing an end to the exile, the Psalmist’s intentions are more general — attachable to the fervor of an individual at prayer. The Psalm verses are full of praise of the Lord God. The Lord is “great, worthy of high praise, gracious, merciful, good to all, compassionate toward his creation, just, holy,” but above all, the Lord is always close by — near.
In the second reading’s brief excerpt from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, he informs them that he’s in chains, in prison. He is facing a dilemma in his own thoughts. Is it better to live or to die? Either is acceptable because “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Continuing to live brings fruitful labor in his apostolate. But, “I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, which is a better choice, but to remain living in the flesh is better for you.” Like parents’ final advice to their children, Paul adds, “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
The parable in this Sunday’s gospel begins with Jesus’ familiar introduction, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . . .” Since none of the gospels ever defines “the kingdom of heaven” we need to figure that out for ourselves, and there are surely multiple answers. One thing is certain; it is not just life eternal with God. It is related to Christian life now. One might say that the parable is a way of teaching Christian conduct here and now. In today’s parable a landowner goes out at various times of the day to hire people to work in his vineyard. The first workers were hired at dawn, more at 9 a.m., still more at noon and 3 p.m., and finally at 5 p.m. Day workers by law had to be paid on the day of their work. The first hired had agreed to the usual daily wage, the Roman coin denarius. When pay time comes around, all those hired later, even the ones who had worked only one hour, all received one denarius. Fortunately, this parable is not intended to be a guideline for labor-management relations, but to teach Christian conduct in some problem Matthew was called upon by church authorities to offer a solution. Being normal human beings, the first hired were troubled when they saw the same pay given to the later hired.
The owner of the vineyard explains that he fulfilled his contract to the letter with the first hired, but was being generous to those hired later. “Am I not free to do with my own money what I wish?” Then a puzzling final statement, “Thus, the first will be last and the last first.” One interpretation: The earliest Christians were all Jews. For those early Christians, the Jesus movement called “the Way” was a way of living their Judaism plus accepting Jesus as their Messiah. With their training they carried the Old Testament burden of prejudice against Gentiles. For example, Deuteronomy 7 and 23. We know from Acts of Apostles and Paul’s Letters how difficult it was for many early Christians to accept into the Christian/Jewish community people of different races and backgrounds. How Jesus used the parable we may not be able to know. Matthew how-ever directs the parable to the early Christians who now were asked to accept as equals the Gentile Christians flooding into the Church in the last third of the first Christian century. Matthew tells them, “Do not be envious, but rejoice that these latecomers were joined to you pioneers in God’s plan for salvation.” Can this parable instruct us about Christian attitudes toward migrants?