Reading 1: Isaiah 55:6-9
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Reading 2: Philippians 1:20C-24, 27A
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16A
At the end of the chapter in Matthew’s Gospel just before the one we hear today, Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mt 19:27-30). You might envision the looks on the disciples’ faces.
Today’s gospel picks up as if Jesus is looking at these astounded disciples once again and saying, “OK, let me try again and put it another way…” He had to break open for them that “God’s ways are not your ways, nor God’s thoughts your thoughts,” as Isaiah put it. Jesus turns to the reality of daily life: workers looking for jobs. In Chicago, we have many day laborers who line up waiting to be picked for a job that can pay them for the day or maybe — if they are lucky — a few days. Imagine them hearing that there is a boss who comes back every few hours and still had jobs, even up to the end of the workday — which might strike Jesus’s disciples as odd. But then comes pay time, and Jesus twists them around.
Though in our quite different social context, we still might be rather astounded ourselves. They all get the same pay. We can hear the grumbling: “But I was there first! How dare you pay those who were here for an hour the same day’s wage as me! I worked all day. That’s not fair.” Maybe our hearing is inflected by the insidious individualism and sense of entitlement that permeates dominant US culture: whether it comes to envy of others who have more, outdoing one another to prop ourselves up, or even refusing to wear a mask where mandated. Jesus’s rebuttal in this parable says to us today: Get over yourself. There’s a bigger picture, and if you want to live into this, as Paul puts it in the second reading, “…conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil1:27a).
Jesus calls us to what is merciful and just. Jesus is pushing us forward from the ways of thinking of the world to the ways of thinking of the “kin-dom” of God. There is no jealousy, but only mercy and kindness. Jesus is trying to convince them: God’s gift is gracious and gratuitous. We appreciate it for what it is and are thankful for the sheer gift that we have been given, without a puzzled, “But why?” Our response, instead, is to give thanks for God’s steadfast love and mercy. Certainly, this is not our way or thought: No, it’s not fair, but it is merciful and just. Jesus summons us forward. The “first shall be last and the last shall be first” is not talking about our actually lining up or checking our watches to call out those who are late. It is a reversal of our logic that says all are embraced equally! As the landowner responded frankly to one of the discontented workers: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Our pandemic has shown us quite clearly how much we depend on our seasonal workers, our day laborers, our essential workers: those who are just looking for employment, or those had no choice but to return to work to make some money to get through life for themselves and their families in the season of COVID-19. Even for all the unemployed, the relief check that has been a lifeline is now running out of rope. Where is the vision of mercy and justice in even a fair wage for these essential workers?
Note that in the parable, the day laborers had to be invited to come to work, according to the conventions of the day. To value the vision of the “kin-dom” of God means we too are called to invitation, to proclamation, and to contestation of the way things are.
Jesus invites us to a new way of thinking about right and just relationships. Yes, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. And, indeed, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor God’s ways our ways. And for that, we truly should resound with thanks to God.
Richard McCarron, PhD
Assistant Professor of Liturgy