As I was preparing for this homily, I did some background reading about the labor practices of those in today’s parable. In those days, it was normal for a landowner to hire additional help at 9 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. Those already working in the vineyard would have been familiar with “extra help” arriving throughout the day. It was the normal practice to pay the late workers a lesser amount, but nothing obligated the landowner to adhere to that practice. In this parable, he did promise fair restitution, though, when he told the workers that he would be just to them. In the same way, we experience the generosity of God not because we have merited it or because we deserve it, but because he is generous and loves us more than we can understand.
The negative response of the grumbling workers was because they mistook divine generosity for divine injustice. They felt as if they were being cheated. But, the landowner responded by telling those workers that it was they who were being unjust. It was not for them to decide the limits of the landowner’s generosity, just as it is not ours to decide God’s.
An excellent way to read Scripture is to imagine ourselves as being in the story. In this case, I think most of us would try to see ourselves in the same position as that of the landowner. At first, this could come across as self-defeating. It does not do us much good to dwell on what we cannot do. In the first reading, God reassures us that we should not expect that. He reminds us that our thoughts are not His and neither are our ways. So, it is okay if we struggle to offer unmerited mercy and justice. In some ways, it almost seems as if he expects it.
There are many messages for us in today’s Scripture passages. I will not try to exhaust them all – I could not if I tried. But, I do want to speak about another idea. Conversion. Today’s Gospel also reminds us that it is never too late to seek God. Right now, our parish is offering myriad opportunities for formation and spiritual growth. Yes, it is true that some of these programs have already started, but I can guarantee that you will not be turned away if you arrive “late.” Perhaps your place in the field of our parish is on the third Monday, at the discussion group. Or, maybe it is on October 1 at the Life Chain. Or, it is through watching online videos from formed.org, or listening to a CD from Lighthouse. Or, perhaps it is in our program for new Catholics, our RCIA program. Regardless of what you do, God is waiting for you with open and loving arms.
In the second reading, we see the classic refutation of the claim that Christians are unconcerned about this life and only intent upon achieving a “pie in the sky.” Paul states it with elegant succinctness: “life means Christ; hence dying is so much gain.” Life and death are the same for one who has been incorporated into Christ by Baptism. Life in the flesh hasn’t been devalued by the revelation in Christ but elevated to the level of a participation in the glory of Christ—even now.
No one lives so fully as a committed Christian. No one values time so much as one who measures it against the aspect of eternity in heaven. That was the way Paul lived, and he challenges us to do the same.