Homily for the 25th Sunday of the Year

The parable we hear today, provokes our sense of justice, or perceived lack thereof, to teach about God’s generous mercy. Let’s have a closer look.

The laborers hired at the start of the day represent the Israelites. Their “work” was to persevere, to remain faithful to God, to keep His commandments. That they worked all day, under the heat of the sun, calls to mind the many years of hardship Israel endured leading up to the time of Our Lord – years of slavery, exile, occupation, and oppression. What was to be their reward, their reason for persevering? A denarius, which represents nothing less than the gift of salvation, of entry into, and possession of, the Promised Land.

The reason the parable is so challenging is because, those hired at the 11th hour will receive the same reward as the Israelites hired at the first hour. These have not had to had to endured, persevere, or kept the commandments, as the Israelites have. Those hired at the last hour are the Gentiles, invited to receive the promises made by God to Abraham and his decedents.

At the time of His preaching, the parable reflects the ministry of Jesus to the Lost Sheep, to sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. The parable also anticipates the work of the Church, sent to all people, of every background, inviting us to share Israel’s reward. Why did Israel struggle with this idea? It is the same reason we might struggle today with the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the elder son persevered faithfully in his father’s vineyard only for the younger son, who abandoned the family, to return and receive a great reward. This seems unjust, just as it seems unjust that those hired at the last hour should receive an equal pay as those hired at the first. But the parable is about God’s generosity, where any perception of injustice says more about the hearer than it does about God.

For those new to our parish, or who have recently returned, or who are in the RCIA program which prepares new members for the sacraments, this parable should encourage you to know that you haven’t missed out. God offers you what he offers those who have labored in his vineyard all their life – the gift of eternal life. God does not hold our sins against us – provided of course that we repent. In fact, as we hear in the Gospel, those who arrive last, so to speak, have the possibility of being first in the Kingdom.

For those who identify with those hired at the start of the day, ho have labored all their lives seeking to keep God’s commandments, holding to His moral precepts, making sacrifices at home and work so that God and your family come first, this parable encourages you to persevere. It reassures that your efforts are not in vain, and that God will offer you the reward of salvation promised at your baptism. For all of us, the parable demands that we open our hearts to rejoice in God’s generosity towards us.

Why did Israel not respond with thanksgiving to God for his generosity? Why might we struggle with this in our day? Envy. Envy is defined by the Church not so much as the desire for another’s goods, but as opposition to someone receiving something good which they appear to not have earned.

There is another reason too. For us, justice and mercy are two different ways of acting. Justice is to give someone what they deserve. Mercy, or charity, is to give someone what they have not deserved, or to pardon someone the demands of justice. While it is possible for us to separate justice and mercy is impossible for God to do so: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

On the Cross, the demands of justice and mercy are both met. It is just that the debt of Adam’s sin is paid; it is mercy because this debt has been paid by the sinless one, who acting in this way pays the debt of sin on our behalf. The cross therefore, displays God’s merciful justice.

How should we respond to this mystery and the parable? If we identify with those hired at the last minute, we should rejoice to think of God’s generosity to us. If we identify more with those hired at the start of the day, who have given our whole lives to the Lord, we are also invited to rejoice at God’s generosity, and to give thanks to God that like St Paul, our sacrifices and sufferings are a participation in the cross of Jesus, for the glory of God and the sanctification of others.