The following is a homily for the twenty fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.
If you could do me a favor and remind me to never to go into business with Jesus, that would be great. Can you imagine an employer doing this today? Of course the ones who worked all day were upset: this is an instant lawsuit. “We’re out working here all day in the heat and you give us the same amount of money as someone who worked for an hour??” God does say in the first reading “my ways are not your ways…” and we can clearly see that. This is not how you run a good business.
Sadly, I’m guessing that all of us can relate to these workers.I know that I do! I’ve lived this experience over and over in my life. When I was in high school, I worked in a restaurant bussing tables. I would work as hard as I could, trying to be clean and efficient, set the table as fast as I could so that customers didn’t have to wait, but you don’t get paid by the table. You get paid by the hour, and so some bussers would take their good old time, do half the work as me, and get paid the same amount.
in high school and college, I had to do group projects. The absolute worst, right? Of course, I did 80% of the work while the others did almost nothing, and at the end of the day, we all got the same grade. Ridiculous! Frankly, it still goes on in my friar life. I’ve had days where I’m working from sunrise to sunset, working my butt off, and I get an unexpected call to visit a sick person in the hospital on the other side of the county… only to find out that the hospital called the others priests and they just didn’t pick up the phone. Why am I doing your work for you?
Hearing this passage today, it’s hard to make sense of what Jesus is saying. It just seems like an injustice to us. So what do we make of it?
Obviously, this is not a business manual, it is a parable. And the focus of the story isn’t the workers who who labored all day, it’s the business owner. It’s important to remember in stories like these that they are told to a specific people for a specific lesson. They use langue they can understand—work, farming, family life—not to actually give practical advice, but to reach something much deeper. In this case, Jesus is speaking to the disciples not Pharisees; this is an internal message to those who already believe. Matthew’s Gospel as a whole was written as a catechism for a largely Jewish community of Christians, not Gentiles; again, an internal message to people who would have been very familiar with God for a long time.
And what is that message? Put simply, that Gentile Christian converts are just as important to God as the Jewish ones.
You see, for thousands of years, the Jewish people had remained faithful to God. They were there from the beginning of the day, sweating and straining in the heat, all because God offered them a just wage. He made a covenant with them: obey my laws, serve me, and I will grant you salvation. Seems like an incredible deal, right? But then, after two or three thousand years, along come these Gentiles, these Johnny-come-latelys, relaxing all day, having lunch in the comfort of their homes while the other workers were eating, showing up at 5 o’clock just before the end of the day, accepting the faith just before they thought the end of the world is coming… and what do they get? The exact same wage the first workers got. The exact same salvation the Jews got.
Jesus tells this parable, Matthew makes it a focal point for his Gospel, because there were Jewish Christians in the community that were grumbling about the new converts. Why, when we’ve been here the whole time, do we get the same reward as those people who just showed up?! They are envious. Even though they get a just wage, even though they get exactly what they wanted, they look at their fellow Christians with disdain and resentment, as their enemy. All they’re focused on is what they don’t have, what they think they deserve, and they’re missing the true wonder of God: God is generous beyond belief.
This is a God who, first, let’s remember, gives a just wage to those who have nothing, who called them and saved them even when they didn’t deserve it. This is a God who doesn’t just send his servants, not just an angel to send a message—he could be at home sipping lemonade, relaxing on the couch—no, he goes himself to get the workers, the living God comes to us in human flesh—He has a personal connection and responsibility to his workers. And then, he doesn’t do what is expected, what is calculated, but gives what is extraordinary—above and beyond what is just. This is a tremendously gracious God, a generous God, caring deeply about his people and showering gifts on them that they do not deserve.
The only reason that the first workers can complain, the only way you or I feel cheated in these situations, is because we compare ourselves to others. Think about it. The Jews, the first workers, were given an incredible gift. Before anyone else, they were blessed with the assurance of salvation, with meaningful work. While others wandered through life not knowing God, not knowing the meaning of it all, being “unemployed” and unsure how they would make it, they were blessed with exactly what they needed. The fact that others now get what they need doesn’t take away from the original blessing.
I honestly liked working in a restaurant, I liked working hard. If given the option to be lazy, I wouldn’t have taken it because it was fulfilling work, and I was paid well to do it. I got to do what I liked AND I got paid? Incredible.
Generally speaking, I have always liked school, put in a lot of effort, and have gotten good grades. Group project or not, that’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got. You’re telling me that I only have to do 80% of the work and still get a good grade? How is that not a blessing!
And I can’t even imagine ignoring a sick call. I want to work. I love to minister, to celebrate the sacraments. I want to be incredibly busy, to work so hard that at the end of the day I collapse in my bed absolutely exhausted. I get to anoint someone who is sick, comfort them in their last moments of life? That’s amazing.
In all of these cases, everyone got just want they needed, not what they thought they deserved. None of us are cheated, we’re not owed any more. Had there been no other workers all day, they would have went away happy with a full day’s work. They would have felt blessed to have the opportunity to work when others were unemployed. It is only when they see someone being more generous to another person that they complain. If we have what we want, if we have agree to what is good and just, then in a sense, it doesn’t matter how others live or what agreements they make, we have what is good for us.
If I opened up my wallet and gave you a $20 bill—assuming I had a $20 bill—you would be happy, would you not? Free money is always good. You would see that as a generous gift, something you did not deserve and yet got anyway. But what if, right after that, I turned the person sitting next to you and have them $1000? All of the sudden, you feel cheated. All of the sudden you feel envious. All of the sudden that gift of $20 doesn’t seem so generous anymore and I have to ask… WHY? What has changed about your $20? What has caused you to go from being overjoyed with your gift to angry and feeling cheated?
As much as we may identify with the first workers, there is something absolutely ridiculous about them. The only way that this makes of envy is when we forget that those other workers are on the same team. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, sons and daughters of the same God. The only way that envy makes sense is if we care more about this life than we do about heaven. The only way that envy makes sense is if we forget that everything we have is already a gift.
God is offering you blessings, love, salvation. That is incredible. Don’t be envious when he also offers it to others and might ask less of them. Maybe they can’t handle as much as you. Maybe they are weaker than you. Maybe, in someone else’s story, you’re the one who showed up late and God more than another person. Maybe it’s not even about you or them, but about the generosity of God. Are you envious because God is generous? I hope not. Because this generosity applies to us all. No matter how much anyone else has, no matter who much you think you should have, remember this: you don’t even deserve what you do have. The point is not that some people have greater gifts from God than you… it’s that everything you have is gift, and it is all you need. Be content with what you have, and be thankful for God’s generosity. God’s ways truly are not our ways, and that is reason for thanks.