The Rewards of the Harvest

‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ (Mt 20:4)

Liturgical day
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), Sept. 24, 2017
Is 55:6-9, Ps 145, Phil 1:20-27, Mt 20:1-16

Why did you come to labor in God’s vineyard? What do you expect?

Does your life attract others to Christ’s side?

Biblical texts often call Israel “God’s vineyard.” When Israel’s kings were strong and its borders secure, the nation thrived under the care of the God whose glory filled the sky and soil. Vineyards were especially evocative as they produced wine, to “gladden their hearts” (Ps 104:15). Several biblical passages describe the grape harvest as a time of celebration. As literary symbol, a vineyard at harvest bespeaks security, abundance and the expectation of joy. It evoked feelings like those many readers today might have for Christmas.

Jesus plays on this in today’s Gospel. The vineyard owner, feeling the spirit of the season, shows unexpected generosity to his late-coming workers, giving them a full day’s wage. In its original context, the parable probably spoke to Jews about Jews. Although many had struggled to keep the faith during times of persecution, others had failed to do so. Now, as the end of time approached, Christ had drawn these lost Israelites back and promised them an equal place in the kingdom. Like the generous vineyard owner, God intended to reward at the eschaton any who labored at his son’s side, no matter how much or little they had borne “the day’s burden and the heat.” In fact, Jesus continues, these latecomers may turn out to be pivotal actors in God’s plan. “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

By Matthew’s time, this context had changed. Gentiles now sought admission to the kingdom. The returning Jews of Jesus’ day could at least claim that God had “hired” them through their ancestral covenant. Gentiles had no such claims. They better resembled thieves clambering over the vineyard wall. Not so, says Matthew. Jesus foresaw this circumstance and left instructions to treat them as full sharers in God’s promises.

God’s ways are not our ways

God’s ways are not our ways, as Isaiah reminds us. Even among today’s Christians, there are many who have struggled to live their faith, and some express resentment toward those who have not. Some Catholics might focus on how they have struggled for justice at great cost, while others might speak of difficult adherence to challenging teachings, but such emphases resemble the complaint of the laborers who bore “the day’s burden and the heat.” They did indeed bear such burdens, but that is not what earned them their reward. The grape harvest is a time of joy. Our labor alongside Christ is its own reward, as St. Paul reminds us in the second reading. Working in God’s vineyard for any other reason is bound to disappoint. By contrast, a person who has spent even one hour laboring alongside Christ has received a matchless gift of grace.

The last shall be first. Several Christians of renown were “late hires.” St. Augustine, St. Angela of Foligno, Avery Dulles, S.J., and Dorothy Day are just a few of the people who came late to the vineyard but fashioned lives of great consequence. When they saw the joy of those working in the day’s heat, they knew their place was among such laborers. We who continue to labor at Christ’s side must keep our attention on him who is our only source of joy and our highest reward.

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