Ponder another collaborative Franciscan Gospel post. This weekly Sunday Gospel reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM. They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel. The excerpts from the Sunday readings are prepared by Joe Thiel. If you would like to read or download the complete pdf with excerpts for your prayer, please click here: Franciscan Gospel Reflection Sept 24 2017 Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner. Please include this information when printing.
Photo: St. Joseph Church at dusk, St. Joseph, WI
Matthew 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, he 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, he 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 text for last Sunday was the familiar but difficult parable of the servant who had been forgiven a great debt but refused to forgive his fellow servant. (Matthew 18:21-35) In selecting the gospel text for this Sunday, the Church skips over the 19th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and asks us to reflect on the parable that opens chapter 20.
In the 19th chapter, Matthew recounts that Jesus departed from Galilee and entered Judea. Great crowds followed him and he healed many. In order to test him, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus’ response challenged the accepted practice of the day. Then Matthew records an occasion when children were brought to him for a blessing. The disciples rebuked Jesus, but he rejected their criticism. Next, a man approached Jesus asking what must be done to possess eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments, but, if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell everything and give to the poor. This led the disciples to ask the question, “Who can be saved?” Peter then asked what they would receive for having left everything to be his followers. Jesus responded, “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life. Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:29-30) While the 20th chapter begins by stating that Jesus addressed the parable to the disciples, Matthew has placed it in the context of Peter’s questions about what they can expect to receive for having left everything to become his followers.
The gospel text for today twice contains a reference to the last being first and the first being last. At the end of the parable, the owner summons the foreman and tells him, “… give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.” (Matthew 20:8) The theme appears again in the last verse of the text. This theme is also present in the other gospels. In Mark, Jesus instructs the twelve: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Later, when the rich young man comes to Jesus asking what he needs to do to enter eternal life, Jesus tells the disciples that, although it is impossible for humans, entering eternal life is not impossible for God. “But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31) Luke also records Jesus teaching this same message. When asked by someone in a crowd about how man will be saved, Jesus likens the Realm of God to a master of a house who locked the door and others came and called from the outside to be admitted. But the Reign of God will be filled with those who come from the farthest ends of the world. “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30) Because this theme of the first being last and the last being first is repeated in all three gospels, it must have been an important part of Jesus’ teaching, and also significant for the early Christian community.
As Jesus told this parable, it probably functioned as way to respond to those who objected to Jesus because he seemed to focus his ministry and attention on the crowds and those who did not keep the religious traditions. Jesus’ parable reflected a God whose compassion and generosity was without limits and not reserved for those who were the chosen or even the obedient. This God went out and sought workers and treated them as one would treat a family member; they received a full portion for their labor. Such an image of God was very different from a God who expected ritual purity or had chosen people.
For the first Christians, who retold the parables of Jesus and reflected on them for insights into their relationship with God, being faithful disciples often meant being rejected by family and community. Some did not persevere–they lost focus of this relationship with God that Jesus spoke of when he talked about the Kingdom of God. Being first in the Kingdom of God lost its appeal next to the hardship of rejection. It was a daily struggle to maintain a way of life that was counter to the cultural tradition where the people thought of themselves as chosen people. The early Christians were ridiculed by most of their neighbors. Many of the early disciples eventually left the community.
Consider the context, as this parable of Jesus is written and incorporated into the gospel. It takes on new meaning in light of the fact that, in general, the Jews were not accepting Jesus as the Messiah, and yet many gentiles were. The idea that “the first will be last and the last will be first” took on further significance. Those who came to faith and had personally experienced the teaching of Jesus were not superior to those who came later, who may have never encountered the historical person of Jesus.
Today we are fortunate to be able to have the insight into the dynamic way God is speaking through the teaching of Jesus, and through this parable. Biblical scholars help us appreciate how God is present in the scriptures, calling each generation into an authentic relationship with our God.
Photo: St. Peter in the Loop Church, Chicago, IL
- What is your experience of looking for work? How does that experience influence how you hear this gospel?
- If you were to imagine yourself as one of the workers in the parable for today, would you have been one of those hired at the very beginning of the day, or more likely at one of the later hours?
- How would you have felt as you came up to receive your wages? How would you have responded to the foreman and to your fellow workers?
- The workers object to what the owner did, because he has made those hired later in the day equal to those hired at the beginning of the day. Do you have a need to feel that you are special, significant in the eyes of another, and to God? Have you ever talked to God about your desire?
- At the end of the parable the owner asks those who are disappointed if they are envious. Are you aware of times when you have been envious of others? How does envy affect your relationship to others and to God?
- At the end of your life on earth, do you hope that God “will give you what is just?”
- Can you take some time to talk to God about how God’s generosity affects you, or about any other sense of yourself that arises as you reflect on this parable?