Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time A
September 20, 2020
Matthew 20: 1-16a
By Rev. John Tran
There’s a play by Timothy Thompson based on this parable in which he depicts two brother competing for work. John is strong and capable; Philip is just as willing but has lost a hand in an accident. When the landowner comes, John is taken in the first wave of workers, and as he labors in the field, he looks up the lane for some sign of Philip. Other workers are brought to the field, but Philip is not among them. John is grateful to have the work but feels empty knowing that Philip is just as needful as he. Finally, the last group of workers arrive, and Philip is among them. John is relieved to know that Philip will get to work at least one hour. But, as the drama unfolds, and those who came last get paid a full days’ wages, John rejoices, knowing that Philip – his brother – will have the money necessary to feed his family. When it comes his turn to stand before the landowner and receive his pay, instead of complaining as the others, John throws out his hand and says with tears in his eyes, “Thank you, my Lord, for what you’ve done for us today!” God’s justice arises out of a sense of community in which we see the “eleventh hour” workers as our brothers and sisters whose needs are every bit as important as our own.
God’s mercy is a curious thing. When it is given to us as a gift, not a right, we are joyful beyond belief. But, when it seems to be thrown away on someone we know for sure in our wisdom does not deserve it, then it is ugly to us; it must be a mistake. These are the thoughts that are present in our reading from Isaiah today; thoughts which catch us a little short. During these last few Sundays God’s word to us has been hard to take a times. We find that God thinks so differently from you and me; it is very difficult to keep up with what God asks of us. What have we been challenged to do and be? We are to imitate God and Jesus to forgive without delay, without limit, and from our hearts. If we try to refuse the challenge, then our claim to belong to God is false.
If, this Sunday, we are looking for a rest from the challenge of God, who always wants to break us out of our way of thinking, we are to be sadly disappointed. Today, Isaiah and Jesus continue to call us to be better images of God. Why? So that we may begin to make his kingdom present in our world today, not tomorrow or at the end of time, but today. Isaiah urges us to seek the Lord while he may be found, call to him while he is near. Then to our shock, we find out that God is not having the prophet say this to us just for our good, as virtuous as we are. No. God is calling out to the scoundrel and wicked person to turn to God and ask for mercy, since God is mercy and generous in forgiving. What kind of company is that for us to be in. But, then Isaiah has God say to us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are you ways my ways.” This certainly brings us up short.
In the gospel we are even more puzzled by the land owner. How can he think that he is being just in paying the same thing to a man who has worked all day in the sun, and to a man who has worked only one hour? This does not fit our idea of justice. But again, the landowner represents God, our Father. If the owner paid the one who worked only a small part of the daily wage, he would not have been able to feed his family that day. Remember these workers worked from day to day, not on a weekly basis. The owner would just have well left the late arrivals without work, than to pay them so little. God is saying that his grace applies to everyone, regardless of merit, and the all have the right to eat for the day.
An early British writer once wrote: ‘Between the stirrups and the ground, I mercy sought, I mercy found.’ The person was riding a horse and was falling off it in such a way that he would die when he hit the ground. God’s mercy and grace are given that quickly. This does not seem fair to us who live out the hard work of discipleship. But do we know the conditions that will be present when we die? Perhaps we will be very glad for that mercy sought and found between the stirrup and the ground. And if that is the case, what is to keep you and me from showing the mercy of God to others today? Why not make the attempt to think as God thinks and put on Christ as St. Paul urges us to do.