The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isa 55:6-9 + Phil 1:20-24,27 + Mt 20:1-16
September 24, 2017
I am caught between the two.
Saint Paul is talking about a tension that all of us feel. But the reasons for this tension differ among various persons. “I am caught between the two”, Saint Paul says in writing to the Philippian people. The question he’s wrestling with is whether it’s better to live down here on earth, or to live in heaven. If Jesus appeared before you tomorrow morning, and told you that at that very moment, He would take you up to Heaven if you wanted, would you go with Him? Or would you be tempted to remain on earth?
Saint Paul is very straightforward: “I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two.” So if it’s hard for a saint to choose between this world and the next, we shouldn’t be surprised if we’re torn, also.
But St. Paul’s reason for being torn is different than the reasons that some have. If you’re a Kenny Chesney fan, you’re familiar with his song called “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.” One version of the refrain goes: “Everybody wants to go to heaven / Get their wings and fly around / Everybody want to go to heaven / But nobody want to go now.” And to explain why this is, the singer tells how after church one Sunday he told his pastor: “Next time you got the good Lord’s ear / Say I’m comin’ but there ain’t no hurry / I’m havin’ fun down here.” St. Paul wouldn’t have been singing this song extolling “the good life” as he walked down the country roads to preach. Instead, his aim was to form what today we call intentional disciples.
So what reasons does Saint Paul give for wanting to stay here on earth? He tells us in the Second Reading, saying, “I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.” In other words, there are two competing goods here: two good things, both better than “the good life”.
Clearly, Paul has been laying out his own struggle before the Philippians to give them an example. By describing this struggle in his own life, he’s been indirectly asking the Philippians, “Do you ever feel like there’s no meaning to this world, that you’d be better off elsewhere? Do you ever wonder why you’re still here on earth?”
Then in our last verse he offers an answer: “…conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” There is only one Way. There is only one way that gives abiding meaning to this world, and that is the way of self-sacrifice: living for others, instead of living for oneself. Suddenly, the tension clears.
Such clarity emerges also from Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Saint Paul teaches us to live our lives for others, instead of for ourselves. But Jesus through this parable teaches us just who these others are.
Jesus’ parable, of course, is not about economics, but about mercy and love. At the end of the parable, when the landowner rhetorically asks, “am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?”, we understand that Jesus is speaking on behalf of God the Father, who asks us, “am I not free to do as I wish with my own love and mercy?”
Each of us gripes and complains just like the laborers in this parable. We cannot understand why others should receive blessings in their lives when they don’t deserve them.
But God calls us, as Christians, to do something profound. He calls us not only to be happy for others when they receive blessings. Our Lord asks us actually to be the one who bestows blessings on those who don’t seem to deserve them. Our Lord asks us to imitate that landowner: to extend blessings to others, not because of how deserving they may or may not be, but to share in the Lord’s work of bestowing mercy on a fallen people.