The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 55:6-9 + Philippians 1:20-24,27 + Matthew 20:1-16
I am caught between the two.
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Saint Paul is talking about a tension that all of us feel. “I am caught between the two”, Saint Paul writes to the Philippian people. He’s wrestling with whether it’s better to live down here on earth, or to live in heaven.
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.
If Jesus appeared before you tomorrow morning and told you that at that moment He would take you up to Heaven, would you go with Him? Or would you choose to remain on earth? All of us feel such tension, yet it’s important to note that the reasons for this tension differ among various persons.
St. Paul’s reason for being torn between Heaven and earth is different than the reasons that some of us 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.” To explain why this is the case, 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 are called intentional disciples. Saint Paul explains in the Second Reading: “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: 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 indirectly asks 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 the Second Reading’s last verse he starts to offer 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: the way of self-sacrifice. This way means living for others instead of for oneself. When we realize this in our own lives, the tension between living in Heaven and living on earth clears.
Such clarity emerges also from Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel Reading: “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 clarifies who these others are.
Jesus’ parable is literally about an employee paying his employees. Yet the point of the parable is not economics, but mercy and love. At its end, when the landowner rhetorically asks, “am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?”, we understand that this character represents God the Father, who asks each of 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 seem to deserve them.
But God calls us Christians to do something profound. He calls us not only to be happy for others when they receive blessings. Our Lord asks us 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 undeserved blessings upon our fellow fallen man.
From a Byzantine Gospel – 11th century (Bibliothèque nationale de France)