How good it is, Sunday after Sunday, to hear these Gospels from St Matthew! How good, amid the fears and obsessions wracking the kingdoms of the world, to hear Christ’s strong, calm voice telling us the secrets of the Kingdom of God. Sunday after Sunday, we’re given this opportunity to put on the mind of Christ.
And so again today, praise God! We hear the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
So, what about the vineyard, first? Jesus’ original listeners would have known their Isaiah: “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel” (Is 5:7), meant to produce the wine of righteousness and praise. For the early Christians, listening some two generations later, it meant their own community, their “local church”, made up of first-hour Jewish Christians and eleventh-hour Gentiles. For us, there are the words of our Lord to the 13th c. mystic, St Mechtild: “this vineyard is my Catholic Church in which I worked for 33 years, watering it with my sweat. Now, you work with me in this vineyard.”
On the evening of 19 April 2005, Joseph Ratzinger, just elected Pope, Benedict XVI, came out on the balcony of St Peter’s and said, “After the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard.”
And what about the landowner? He’s the local laird, and the parable recounts a day in his life, the life of his estate, with its fields and settlements. We can almost hear the village clock marking the hours. But he’s an unusual man. He’s going at full tilt. He has been up and about early, from sunrise, looking for workers. “Do you want to do something useful, mate?” Five times in the course of the day he “goes out”. He’s desperate for help, eager to get the harvest in before the weather turns. Who is he? In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “My Father is working still” (Jn 5:17). So yes, he’s the Father. But Jesus goes on, “and I am working too.” So it is he too. The “Father and I are one”. This constant “going out” points the same way. In the Gospel of John, the phrase “goes out” is used for the coming, incarnation and mission of the Son of God. So, Christ too is the Lord of the vineyard.
He cannot, frankly, bear to see us idle, standing around in the market place, checking our Facebook page, browsing the net, not doing anything useful, our potential unrealised, wasting our lives. In the book of Wisdom it’s said, “He created all things that they might exist” (Wis 1:14). In the Gospel of John again, “I have come that they might have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). In the Old Testament again, Wisdom cries out, recruiting students: stop faffing about, do something serious with your life. The Lord seeks his workman, says St Benedict. “We were not created for an easy life,” Pope Benedict told his fellow-Bavarians a few days after his election, “but for great things, for goodness” (24/4/05). “I have a work to do”, St John Henry Newman famously said. To enter the kingdom, we have to change and become a child; the Sacrament of Baptism crystallises that. But once we are in it, we must work like a responsible adult; there’s one grace of the Sacrament of Confirmation. “Man goes forth to his work, to labour till evening falls” (Ps 103:23). My novice master used to say, “The spiritual life is difficult to start with; after that, it’s just exhausting!” It’s touching how eager the landowner is to recruit fellow- workers. When Mother Teresa of Calcutta was called to go out to the poor, she heard him say, “I can’t do this by myself.” He’ll even go out at the 11th hour. There’s even a remarkable contemporary religious congregation called the (Eudist) Servants of the Eleventh Hour. They were founded not long ago by a twice-divorced high-life American woman from Beverley Hills who felt called to something better later in life, and of all extraordinary things went and lived voluntarily in a crazy, dangerous, out-of-control Mexican prison run by the gangsters it housed, doing her best to assuage the terrible things that went on there. She died in 2013.
There’s challenge here, but comfort too. In the Kingdom of God, however useless we feel, however disabled by all sorts of things, however disempowered, we are always, in God’s eyes, useful. We are not just workers in the vineyard, we’re branches of the vine. Apart from him, we can do nothing. But it seems to be true too: apart from us he can do nothing. He needed a woman to become a man, our Lady. No Mary: no Jesus. No Church: no Body, no fullness, of Christ in the world. We’re in this together. It’s a cooperative. And the parable says: stop this first-called vs last-called, the elder brother syndrome. Stop this, “we’re the real Catholics, not these others”. Stop the snobbishness. Drop your sense of superiority. Rejoice in others’ gifts, don’t resent them. Hidden away in this parable – in verse 2 – is the word “symphony”. That’s the vision: many voices, beautiful in their differences, singing one song, led by the Lord. That’s the harvest in the vineyard. That’s the wine. Early in the morning of our lives, then again and again, at the third, sixth, ninth, eleventh hour, out goes the Lord seeking his workman. There’s work for the young, for the middle-aged, and beyond.
And finally, what’s the shining silver coin, the denarius, the labourer’s daily wage, pressed in the outstretched hand of each labourer at the end of the day? The same for all and yet a treasure for each. Daily bread but, as the last-called understand, a great gift, a feast, the Lord’s overflowing generosity. Our equality before the Lord and a joy to be shared. We are all one in Christ, thanks to the bright Roman coin stamped with the image of our King. We enter the kingdom as children of baptism. We work in it by the power of the confirming Spirit. And we rejoice in it thanks to the Eucharistic gift, the divine denarius.
So then, my dear brothers and sisters, says St Paul, stay firm and immovable, always abounding in energy for the Lord’s work, knowing that in the Lord none of your labour is in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 20 September 2020)