Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Last Shall Be First

                  25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

We have to remember that the prophets of the Old Testament were not so much tellers of the future but perceptive commentators on their own times. Isaiah was no exception. In today’s first reading he is telling the Israelites living in captivity in Babylon that it is hard for them to see the big picture. Indeed, just like us the Israelites in Isaiah’s day seemed to identify their thoughts and ways with the will of God. Especially in an election year politicians and political commentators of all persuasions insist that their ideas and programs are certain to lead us to the promised land.

Even though we believe that we are made in the image of God, in actual practice we tend to talk and act as if God was made in our image. Yet in today’s reading we hear the Lord say,

      My thoughts are not your thoughts,
      Nor are your ways my ways.

Is there an other place in the Gospels where the disparity between the Lord’s ways and ours is more pronounced than in today’s reading from Matthew? I’m sure that most of us sympathize with the workers who had been toiling in the vineyard all day but then get the same pay as those who only worked a short time. If we were to take a poll I think that an overwhelming majority would say that the landowner was being unfair and unjust.

Commentators on Matthew say that in this parable the evangelist is making a point that newly converted pagan Christians will have as much right to enter the Kingdom of God as the initial Jewish Christians.

Nevertheless, it might be a good idea to take this parable in its context. In the passage immediately before this parable, Matthew had recorded these words of Jesus:
 But many who are first now will be last, and many who are last now will be first.

Then Jesus tells the parable and ends with the same words, “Even so, the last shall be first, and the first last."

Matthew then recounted an incident that occurred immediately after. The mother of James and John, two of the first apostles called by Jesus, asks Jesus to place her sons in a place of honor in his Kingdom. Apparently she has not understood the parable. Jesus explains that she does not know what she is asking for, and tells all the Apostles that true greatness lies in humility.

Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; even as the Son of man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The parable then would appear to be a warning against complacency. Because many of us have toiled years in the vineyard of life, it does not mean that we can take on airs or assume we are better than anyone else. Even the best of us can trip and fall. And the least of us can experience a miraculous recovery.  

In today’s passage from the letter to the Christian community at Philippi St. Paul says that though he longs to die and be with Christ, he is content to keep working in the vineyard as long as the Lord requires. “If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.”

Those who have trouble with the parable of the workers in the vineyard should consider that the opportunity to work a long time in the vineyard is a great gift. Working in the vineyard is its own reward. The more we work in the vineyard the more we will understand the concern and love of Jesus for those who have fallen away. In the gospels there are so many examples of the Father’s love for those who have returned even at the last minute.

Perhaps the greatest example occurred on the Cross when Jesus promised the Good Thief that “this day you will be with me in Paradise.” 

Titian: The Good Thief


Reading 1. Isaiah 55: 6-9
Reading II. Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
Gospel. Matthew 20:1-16a (the last will be first).

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