Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time A
A rich old man was dying. He sent for his accountant and his lawyer to come and sit by his bed as he died. After a long, awkward silence, one of them asked, “Sir, why have you called us here?” “Because I want to die like Jesus,” he answered, “between two thieves.”
We know that Jesus hung on his Cross between two thieves. But who stood there below at his feet? His Mother, of course, and Mary Magdalene. But also his Apostle, John. John had been one of the very first to follow Jesus, called from his fishing nets on the seashore. He left his job and family, walking the dusty roads of Palestine with Jesus for years, following him all the way to Calvary—the only Apostle to do so. And after the Resurrection, John took the Virgin Mary into his home, caring for her during the rest of her earthly life. He wrote one of the four Gospels for us, and four other books in the New Testament. It’s believed he died in his 90’s, after a long and full career in the Lord’s service.
It’s safe to guess that St. John has a pretty high place in heaven—right? (Of course, he and his brother James were hoping for just that, once asking Jesus for seats to his right and his left in his kingdom!)
Now, back to those two thieves. What do we know about them? From their own words, we know they were guilty as charged and received a just punishment for their crimes…which tells us they’d been arresting for something far worse than shoplifting. What’s the difference between the two? One of them mocks and reviles Christ, but the other, seemingly now repentant for his sins, says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What a beautiful profession of faith! This hardened criminal is able to look at the man crucified beside him and see, not only one who is innocent, but a King whose reign is beyond this life and even this world. And how does Jesus answer him? “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That makes the “good thief” the only saint to have been personally canonized by Jesus!
Is it also safe to guess that the “good thief” has a pretty high place in heaven?
But wait. St. John had dedicated 70 years or more to following Christ, and given up everything. How long was the “good thief” a disciple? Only minutes or hours! And what had he given up? You might say he’d given up his former ways…but that’s easy enough to do when you’re dying and there’s absolutely no chance you’ll return to them anyway. How could it possibly be fair for them both to receive the same eternal reward?
Such a contrast between these two saints is a perfect parallel to the parable Jesus tells us this Sunday. The parable of the workers in the vineyard is probably the one with which Christians struggle the most. It’s not fair! But we must remember Jesus wasn’t teaching us about labor relations or encouraging people to join the union. He tells us this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. And, because of that, it contains many important points for us to ponder. I want to consider three of them with you this Sunday.
Who is the “landowner” in the parable? God, of course. And what does this parable tell us about him? That God is amazingly generous. First, that landowner is generous in his hiring practices. If it’s 5:00pm, and quitting time is 6:00pm, and nobody’s hired you yet…there just might be a good reason for that. But he hires such folks anyway. And then there’s the salaries. Everybody got the amount specified in their contract, right? No one was cheated out of what they deserved. It’s just that most of the workers got even more than they deserved—many, a whole lot more. The bonus was a pure gift. Our God is exceedingly generous.
Who are the “workers” in the parable? Well, that’s us. And what are they doing before they got hired? Absolutely nothing. So what does that say about you and me? That from God’s perspective, we often look pretty idle. (Remember what God says through his prophet, Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways you ways….”) It makes me think of a bumper sticker I’ve seen a few times: “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” Most of us feel exceptionally busy these days—even if we’re technically retired. But we’re busy about our own affairs, with the things of this world, rather than busy about God’s affairs, with the things of heaven.
What were those workers hired to do in the vineyard? Most likely, it was to bring in the harvest. And what is the harvest God wants us to gather into his kingdom? Souls! We have been given a share in the mission of Jesus: to win souls for eternal life. That’s the “fruitful labor” St. Paul talks about—unable to decide if he prefers death or life, since dying means heaven but life means bring more people to Christ. Do you want to go to heaven? It’s going to take some effort though, right? Not because it’s the wage due a job well done, but because we ought to lead lives worthy of such an incredible gift. And I suspect you’d be willing to work a bit at getting those who came with you to Mass this morning into heaven, too. But about those who aren’t at Mass today—those we only see at Christmas and Easter? What about those who never go to this or any church anywhere ever? How much are you willing to do to get them to heaven? One of the motivations for getting to heaven is knowing about the alternative. If we really believe that there’s a hell, then what must we think of our fellow human beings—friend or stranger—if we don’t do everything in our power to keep them out of it? There’s a huge harvest out there, ripe for the picking—but the season is limited. And God is always hiring.
In response to our most generous God, let’s be sure not to stand idly by, but to get right to work at gathering in souls, that together with St. John and the “good thief” we might celebrate a most bountiful harvest and live with the Lord Jesus forever.