Isaiah 55:6 – 9
This Sunday, we will hear from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Seeing that it is taken from chapter 55, we know that it is part of Deutero-Isaiah, dealing with Israel during its Babylonian exile. It is at the very end of the Babylonian captivity and we should read the opening verses of the chapter since they speak in anticipation of how the Persians would allow the exiles to return. The Book of Ezra opens with the decree of Cyrus that called the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple; let’s look at Ezra 1 and then read the first five verses of Isaiah 55 before examining Sunday’s reading.
Scholars look at Chapter 55 as the hinge between the second and third major divisions of the Book of Isaiah. It reaches back into what has gone before and introduces the final section. The introduction (Isaiah 55:1-5), is the wide-open invitation to enjoy the fruits of wisdom, God’s free offering to any who are hungry and thirsty for the life God offers. That invitation is followed by a short section far more imperative in tone; that’s what we will hear on Sunday.
6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near.
Seek…call: with these imperatives, Dt-Isaiah insists that Israel seek the Lord (cf. Am 5:4; Hos 6:1-3; Ps 9:11). The admonition calls for a humble turning to God with urgent prayer and desperate need. Man must seek God, and yet recognize that God’s ways are far beyond comprehension. These lines combine those mysterious opposites of divine grace: God is transcendent, yet near enough to help; man is helpless, yet required to act energetically.
7 Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts; Let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
Let the scoundrel…: We can read this as a rather unflattering but probably accurate assessment that all of us have something of the scoundrel in us. But, rather than focusing on our own sinfulness, the prophecy calls us to focus on God, as we hear in the next few verses.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
9 As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.
my thoughts are not your thoughts… As high as the heavens are above the earth: There’s probably no sincere believer who would claim to understand God; his ways and his thoughts are well beyond our imagining. But, how often do we expect God to act on our agenda and obey our rules.
We are invited to take a rather humble and humbling stance. When we “turn to the Lord” and seek an encounter with God – who longs to be found – our vision becomes immeasurably larger. We discover true humility which comes not out of self-abasement but from glimpses of the grandeur and love of God. With that humility, we are prepared to hear that God’s ways are beyond our imagining. And, as distant as these verses make God appear, we need to finish the chapter to see the other side of the coin (read vss. 10 – 13). His work will be accomplished to His glory and to the joy of the Israelite nation. And, as we read throughout the Bible (cf. Ex. 25:8, Romans 1:18-23), God is in our midst.
But, God is not answerable to our agenda, not circumscribed by our dogma, not limited to our language. When Isaiah quotes God as saying, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways,” the intent is not to denigrate human wisdom or to say that inspiration is impossible. The point is the very simple and hard to accept fact that we are not God.
As is usually the case, this first reading prepares us for this Sunday’s Gospel message.
Matthew 20: 1 – 16a
This week, we continue to hear from Matthew’s Gospel. If you have paid attention over the past several months, after we celebrated Pentecost Sunday, followed by Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi, we have been working through Matthew’s Gospel. For the past two weeks, we heard from chapter 18. We skip over chapter 19, which we will hear later, and hear from the beginning of chapter 20.
This is another parable that is peculiar to Matthew. It is difficult to know whether the evangelist composed it or received it as part of his traditional material and, if the latter is the case, what its original reference was. In its present context, its close association with Matthew 19:30 suggests that its teaching is the equality of all the disciples in the reward of inheriting eternal life. It is another parable about the kingdom of God, so we have to keep that in mind as we read the passage.
1 “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
Landowner: obviously, the landowner is God; he owns everything, after all. We forget this so often, but God has created the universe; it is his. We are his laborers.
2 After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4 and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’
What is just: although the wage is not stipulated as in the case of those first hired, it will be fair.
5 So they went off. (And) he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise.
6 Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
7 They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
8 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’
Beginning with the last . . . the first: this element of the parable has no other purpose than to show how the first knew what the last were given (Matthew 20:12). The landowner could have avoided this entire confrontation if only he had paid the laborers who had been in the vineyard all day first. They would have been too tired to stay around to see what everyone else received. Of course, then Jesus wouldn’t have the occasion to teach his lesson!
9 When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.
10 So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.
11 And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner,
12 saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
13 He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
I am not cheating you: literally, “I am not treating you unjustly.”
14 Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
15 (Or) am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’
my own money: again, we are reminded that everything belongs to God.
The owner’s conduct involves no violation of justice (Matthew 20:4,13), and that all the workers receive the same wage is due only to his generosity to the latest arrivals; the resentment of the first comes from envy.
16 Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The most obvious meaning of the parable from an historical perspective is that it compares Jews and Gentiles in the new reign of God. The Gentiles in the time that Matthew’s Gospel was written have come into the Christian community late, but are to be admitted on an equal basis to the Jews who had converted earlier; this certainly caused some tension between the two groups as the Jewish Christians resented the Gentile Christians.
But, there are more levels to this parable that are worth examining. Notice how it is positioned shortly after Jesus promises that the Twelve will sit on 12 thrones and just before the request of the sons of Zebedee for the first places in the reign. The parable may be an admonition not only to the Jewish converts but also to the early disciples. It makes clear that an early call has no relevance to one’s standing in the reign of God. Whenever one is admitted, one is admitted to full participation.
It’s also important to examine the parable from the perspective of the workers. They were all day laborers, who relied on the chance offer of a job every day to feed themselves and their families. The ones who were hired earlier in the day had the added benefit of knowing, early on, that they could put food on the table for their families that day; those who were hired later had been anxious all day about this. It’s so interesting to see how the first workers, who had no more right to work than the last workers, resented the fact that the last workers received the same pay. As if they deserved more! But then, don’t we often find ourselves thinking the same way? We, who are blessed by when and where we happen to be born and live, resent those who would try to get a share in our blessings. As if we deserve it more than they. Just as in Luke’s parable of the prodigal son, we are so blessed to know that God will give us all that we need for our daily lives and, in the end, will invite us to the heavenly feast, a feast beyond our imagination!
Philippians 1:20c – 24, 27a
We hear a section from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote this letter to the community he had founded in Philippi while he was imprisoned. Since we do not know to which imprisonment he is referring, it is difficult to date the writing accurately. But, like the letter to the Romans that we heard from over the past two Sundays, this letter speaks of death and life in Christ.
20c Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
Christ will be magnified: recall Mary’s proclamation, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This is the testament of faith given by someone who is aware that he/she is called to continue the work that Jesus began and so, he/she strives to magnify the Lord.
21 For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
For to me life is Christ: Paul recognizes that he is privileged to be part of the body of Christ and his work in building up the kingdom of God is possible because he is living in Christ.
22 If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose.
23 I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, (for) that is far better.
24 Yet that I remain (in) the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.
25 And this I know with confidence, that I shall remain and continue in the service of all of you for your progress and joy in the faith,
26 so that your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound on account of me when I come to you again.
27a Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ,
so that, whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear news of you, that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind struggling together for the faith of the gospel,
Our first reading and Gospel assure us that, if we work in God’s vineyard, he will care for our daily needs; that’s all we need to know about God. And, from the second reading, we are reminded that life here on earth means fruitful labor. But, death is our real focus, because it leads to eternal life!