This week, Fr. Piccolo reflects on Matthew 20:1-16, the Gospel reading for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Gospel of the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mt. 20:1-16)
Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
“There’s nothing so unjust as dividing equal shares among unequal parties.” ~ Lorenzo Milani, Letter to a Teacher
Among the things I read as a maladjusted adolescent, I remember a book by an American Jesuit, Thomas Green, with a disquieting title: Darkness in the Marketplace. It was part of a short series about discernment. The book focused on the experience of desolation when you realize that life is passing you by and you haven’t been able to find any meaning in it. At the end of the day, darkness begins to fall over the marketplace where you had put your life up for sale and hoped that someone would recognize your worth, where you had hoped to be valued. It’s almost night. And your life feels like a waste.
This is the image that Jesus uses in this parable. The marketplace is the symbol of the life in which we try to sell ourselves to others. We show off our strength, our beauty, our abilities and we hope that someone will take notice. The image of the marketplace provokes great realism because the market, like life, is the same place where we could sell ourselves out or trick others into buying our fake merchandise. The marketplace, like life, sometimes becomes the place where you can get a bargain or make a great deal. But many times things don’t work out. And even when it’s our turn to buy, we may come to ask ourselves if it was really all worth it.
If this is our life, trapped in the fervent quest for some kind of meaning, Jesus shows us the face of God. There is a tireless landowner that sets out at dawn to find laborers to send out into the vineyards of life, a landowner who longs in his heart for his laborers to find a reason to live, a landowner whose only desire is to fulfill the hopes of all men and women throughout history.
He is a landowner who is always going out looking for laborers and is never satisfied. Promptly, every three hours, he looks out into the marketplace: at dawn, then at nine, then at noon, and then again at three. At this point in the day, the work is almost done. Why go out again? The workday ends at six and yet the landowner, this time, does not wait the three hours and he goes out at five. There’s only an hour left to profit from. It is never too late to find meaning in life for God. It doesn’t matter how long it is; what matters is that you find the duty that has always been waiting for you and that, by taking it up, you give meaning to your existence.
The landowner not only longs to give meaning to people’s lives… He also changes our convictions about justice. We might think that justice is measured by merit: give to each their share. Lorenzo Milani, who was ignored for a long time but whose work has more recently become more recognized for their valued, once said that there is no greater injustice than to give equal shares to unequal parties. True justice, that which Jesus teaches us, starts with the needs of each one of us: being just means giving each person what they need. A day’s wage is what each person needs to live any given day. That is why it is just to give it also to those who have only worked an hour.
In the eyes of God, no life is wasted, no life should be squandered. And even when we are oppressed by desolation and we think that everything is useless, remember always that the owner of the vineyard has already set out again in search of us.
Questions for personal reflection:
• How do you deal with the experience of desolation you face?
• Have you found the meaning of your life or are you still searching for it?