September 21, 2014
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 20: 1-16
[Jesus told his disciples this parable:] 1 "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 Going out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.' 5 So they went off. (And) he went out again around noon, and around three o'clock, and did likewise. 6 Going out about five o'clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' 7 They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.' 8 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.' 9 When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage. 10 So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, 'These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat.' 13 He said to one of them in reply, 'My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? 15 (Or) am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?' 16 Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."
Last Sunday the church celebrated The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. That feast replaced the reading for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The gospel text for that Sunday is the familiar but difficult parable of the servant who had been forgiven a great debt but refuses to forgive his fellow servant. (Matthew 18:21-35) In selecting the gospel text for this week, the Church skips over the 19th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and asks us to reflect on the parable that begins chapter 20. In the 19th chapter, Matthew recounts that Jesus departed from Galilee and entered Judea. Great crowds followed him and he healed many. In order to test him, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus’ response challenged the accepted practice of the day. When children were brought to him for a blessing, the disciples rebuked Jesus and he rejected their criticism. Another approached him asking what must be done to possess eternal life. He was told to keep the commandments but, if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell everything and give to the poor. This led the disciples to ask the question, “Who can be saved?” Peter then asked what they would receive for having left everything to be followers. Jesus responded, “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life. Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:29-30) While the 20th chapter begins by stating that Jesus addressed the parable to the disciples, Matthew has placed it in the context of Peter’s questions about what they can expect to receive for having left everything to become his followers.
The theme, that the last will be first and first will be last, is repeated twice in the text for this Sunday. At the end of the day, the owner summons the foreman and tells him, “… give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.” (Matthew 20:8) The theme appears again in the last verse of the text. This theme is also present in the other gospels. In Mark, Jesus instructs the twelve: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Later, when the rich young man came to Jesus asking what he needed to do to enter eternal life, Jesus told the disciples that, although it was impossible for humans, entering eternal life was not impossible for God. “But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31) Luke also records Jesus teaching this same message. When asked by someone in a crowd about how man will be saved, Jesus likens the Realm of God to a Master of a house who locked the door and others came and called from the outside to be admitted. But the Reign of God will be filled with those who come from the farthest ends of the world. “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30) Because this theme of the first being last and the last being first is repeated in all three gospels, it must have be an important part of Jesus’ teaching and also significant for the early Christian community.
As Jesus told this parable, it probably functioned as way to respond to those who objected to Jesus because he seemed to focus his ministry and attention on the crowds and those who did not keep the religious traditions. Jesus’ parable reflected a God whose compassion and generosity was without limits. This God went out and sought workers and treated them as one would treat a family member; they received a full portion for their labor. Such an image of God was very different from a God who expected ritual purity.
For the first Christians, who retold the parables of Jesus and reflected on them for insights into their relationship with God, being faithful disciples often meant being rejected by family and community. Some did not persevere and lost focus of the relationship with God that Jesus spoke of when he talked about the Kingdom of God. Being first in the Kingdom of God lost its appeal next to hardship of rejection and daily struggle. Many of the early disciples eventually left the community.
As this parable of Jesus is written and incorporated into the gospel, it takes on new meaning in the fact that, in general, the Jews were not accepting Jesus as the Messiah and yet gentiles were. The idea that “the first will be last and the last first” took on further significance. Those who came to faith in person with Jesus were not superior to those who came later and may have never encountered the historical person of Jesus.
Today we are fortunate to be able to have the insight into the dynamic way God is speaking through the teaching of Jesus and through this parable in particular.
1. What is your experience of looking for work? How would that experience influence how you hear this gospel?
2. How would you feel if you had been working at a particular job for a long time and you were paid the same as a person who had just been hired?
3. Those who worked all day knew that they had earned their wage, those who had worked only an hour knew that they had not. How did that affect each of their attitudes toward the landowner?
4. Do you think that your good works, prayers, and adherence to a code of moral behavior earn you a place in heaven? What gospel texts seem to support your belief? How does that affect your relationship with God?
5. Do you think that God invites all, even the sinner and scoundrel, to a loving and life- giving relationship? What gospel text can you think of to support that belief? How would living out of that belief affect your relationship with God?
6. At the end of your life on earth do you hope that God “will give you what is just?”
7. What lines and phrases strike you in this gospel text? What kind of emotional response happens within you as you hear those words or phrases?
8. What does this parable tell you about God? How do you want to respond?
Reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.
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A Spanish translation of the reflection questions is made possible by Fernando Alessandrini.
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