Who is first, who is last, and does it matter to God?

By: By Sharon Priester

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 18

Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145: 2-3,8-9,17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24,27a; Matthew 20:1-16a

On the first Monday of this month, we celebrated Labor Day, a national holiday for recognizing and honoring laborers with speeches, parades and special picnics. This hasn’t changed too much from the time when I was growing up. It was a huge day in our town — parades, picnics, fireworks.
My dad, a laborer in a tannery, enjoyed the activities of the day and was appreciative of the fair treatment he received from his employer.

This Sunday, the Gospel focuses on a landowner and how he treats his laborers. Jesus, using a parable, tells his disciples that “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner” who hires some workers. Early in the morning, he goes out to hire some workers, agreeing to pay them “the usual daily wage.” As the day continues he goes out and hires more, agreeing to “pay them what is just.” As the day ends he pays his workers — starting with those he hired last — “the usual daily wage.”

Because they had worked hard all day, those hired early in the morning thought they would be paid more than the last ones hired. But the first hired received the same wage as those who were hired later. How could this be?

Maybe you have experienced such injustice. I know there was a time in my life when I had the same thoughts as those who were hired first. I worked long hours, more than five days a week, didn’t get much time off and didn’t get to spend much time with my family. Why should someone else get more than me when they only worked 40 hours a week? They even got a week or two of paid vacation and received a bonus. How can this be fair?

How does the owner of the vineyard respond to the grumbling workers? He tells them that he is not cheating them and gives them exactly what he said he would. His most powerful statement to the laborers is the very last one in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The landowner represents God, who “is gracious and merciful,” “slow to anger and of great kindness,” “good to all and compassionate toward all his works.” (Psalm 145:8-9)

God welcomes all to his heavenly kingdom. This includes the person who has been faithful to God every day of his life as well as the “scoundrel who forsake(s) his way, and the wicked his thoughts” (Isaiah 55:7) at the very last moment of his life.

In “God’s Word Today” (Fall 2005), Stephen Binz says this about those we may consider undeserving of being in the kingdom: “Their God is our God. Mercy to them is an assurance that mercy will be available to us.” So let’s stop our grumbling, focus on how we can help nurture the fruit of the vine so that there can be an abundant harvest, and rejoice that God in his mercy welcomes all, even those we think don’t deserve it.

We can begin by following Jesus’ new command to “love one another as I have loved you.” (Matthew 9:7) and the words of advice that Paul gives to the Philippians in our second reading: “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”

In Psalm 145, the psalmist invites us to give praise to God, who is “near to all who call upon him.”

We also hear the psalmist sing, “Every day I bless you, and I will praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord and highly to be praised.” Remember that God loves every one of us unconditionally and wants us to be with him forever and ever in his heavenly kingdom.

In addition, let us pray for all catechists who nurture the fruit of the vine this weekend as we celebrate Catechetical Sunday and continue to pray for each of them throughout the year: “Lord God, source of all wisdom and knowledge, you sent your Son, Jesus Christ, to live among us and to proclaim his message of faith, hope, and love to all nations. In your goodness, bless our brothers and sisters who have offered themselves as catechists for your church. Strengthen them with your gifts, that they may teach by word and by example the truth that comes from you. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Book of Blessings)


SHARON PRIESTER is one of six regional directors of religious education working with the diocesan Office of Catechetics. She is a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Bloomington.

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