25 th Sunday of the Year (A), September 18, 2005, St. Ignatius Church.
Reverend Joseph T. Nolan
This gospel is difficult to understand. The last line was added on to give one explanation. Here is another, which I tried in verse:
“Come into my vineyard
and I will pay you what is fair.”
When we started, all the world was morning
and life itself seemed like each new day,
a thing unworn and full of promise.
It was enough to live.
Something left us. Was it gladness,
or our youth? Others passed,
singing a melody we too had known.
Day is done.
Go tell the owner
we won’t argue over wages.
The light is failing
and we fear the night.
If we are puzzled by this parable, we have been warned by Isaiah! God says through his prophet, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” It is certainly not our way to reward the latecomer with “those who have borne the heat of the day” (to use the old translation). But every time this parable is read, the preacher has to explain that it has nothing to do with a union contract! Parables are told to make a point, and the point here is that salvation is God’s gift, not something that we earn.
Even that is hard to accept. What about the cup of cold water given in his name that Jesus said would not go without a reward? And what about the scene of judgement, that other part of Matthew where we are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner? It is the lazy and the selfish who are condemned; these others who minister to Christ without knowing it are welcomed into the kingdom.
Grace or good works is an old argument among the Christian churches. You may recall that the Catholic church in the sixteenth century abused the whole concept of good works by linking them to indulgences, and linking those to money payments. For the Protestant reformers, that looked like buying grace and heaven. And Martin Luther was led, after probing St. Paul, to a much deeper position: that faith alone is the bridge to salvation, faith in Christ who is the Savior. Perhaps, and only perhaps, it becomes easier if we pause to realize that everything begins as God’s gift. From the remotest galaxy to the newest infant, creation is a gift of being from Being itself. And the gifts continue—we are endowed with astonishing faculties of mind and will and powers of creativity. Yes, we must cultivate them—think how many years we spend in school and how painstakingly an artist, a musician, or an author hone their talent. But it all begins with gift. Even our follow-through with the gift is sustained by God’s grace.
And the response to any gift is twofold. First, gratitude. We give thanks and praise for our benefactor’s goodness. That’s what worship is all about. The second response is to use the gift well. And that’s where good works come in. It’s love responding to love. The apostle puts it well today: “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.” This is the good news that tells each of us the reign of God has already begun—within us. There is a divine presence in each of us; today Paul puts it in a few words: “To me, life means Christ.” He says that is true both on earth and in heaven, and adds, “Whether I live or die, it is gain. But if I live, it means productive toil.” That certainly sounds like doing good works. And his own life was full of them; he was like the proverbial candle burning at both ends—preaching, teaching, writing, dictating letters, founding churches all over, and finally losing his life in martyrdom.
Paul today also presents us with a human enigma. It is this: if “life means Christ and dying is so much gain,” why do we fear it—dying? And why do we postpone as long as we can what should be the crown of life, the fullness of love and relationship? There are many answers to that. Perhaps the most honest, is God made us that way. Living and loving are gifts that we have received and, for the most part, enjoyed. We hate to let them go. We do believe that the joys of this life are only part of the whole, and we ourselves are only “pieces of the Master,” so to speak, awaiting completion. But the bonds of love are so great that dissolving them by death is something we dread. That human condition should lead us to expect that the Creator intends to make up for our partial, fragmented, and fragile existence, often interrupted by pain and accident and violence. In a very basic sense we should realize that God allows death not as punishment for sin—that’s “old stuff,” as kids would tell us; God simply made us with bodies, and in time. That means we need something more. Yes—Jesus called it eternal life. So many things are left undone, and there is so much of wisdom that we would like to acquire, that “there must be more.” This is how Susan B. Anthony put it on her deathbed, that great person who struggled so early for women’s basic rights, “Oh yes, I’d do it all over again; the spirit is willing yet; I feel the same desire to do the work but the flesh is weak. It’s too bad that our bodies wear out while our interests are just as strong as ever.”
I began with a poem and will end with a really great one, this time by the eighteenth century Anglican preacher and dean of St. Paul’s church in London, John Donne. It almost seems as if he had been reading Isaiah today, the first part where he says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near…. Let (the sinner) turn to the Lord for mercy.” This is what Donne wrote,
God made sun and moon to distinguish seasons,
and day and night.
We cannot have the fruits of the earth
but in their seasons.
But God made no decree to distinguish
the seasons of his mercies….
In heaven it is always autumn.
God never says, You should have come yesterday.
He never says, You must come tomorrow,
but today if you hear his voice,
today he will hear you.
He brought light out of darkness,
not out of lesser light;
He can bring thy summer out of winter
even though thou have no spring
All occasions invite his mercies,
and all times are his seasons