The following homily was delivered by Jim Penczykowski at Sunday Assembly at Holy Wisdom Monastery on September 18, 2011 – the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Our scripture today invites us to examine some of our base instincts, some of the characteristics we find least attractive about ourselves.
In our first reading from the Book of Jonah we have Yahweh in the role of “anger management counselor” utilizing the first documented example of Rational-Emotive Therapy.
Anyone who has prayed the psalms is aware that some are replete with calls for Yahweh to wreak vengeance on the psalmist’s enemies. Some of these psalms are quite lurid in detail.
13 O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind. 14 As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze, 15 so do thou pursue them with thy tempest and terrify them with thy hurricane! 16 Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek thy name, O LORD. 17 Let them be put to shame and dismayed for ever; let them perish in disgrace. 18 Let them know that thou alone, whose name is the LORD, art the Most High over all the earth.
19 O that thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God, and that men of blood would depart from me, 20 men who maliciously defy thee, who lift themselves up against thee for evil! 21 Do I not hate them that hate thee, O LORD? And do I not loathe them that rise up against thee? 22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
3 The wicked go astray from the womb, they err from their birth, speaking lies. 4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear, 5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter. 6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD! 7 Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither. 8 Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime, like the untimely birth that never sees the sun. 9 Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away! 10 The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. 11 Men will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”
7 Remember, O LORD, against the E’domites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Raze it, raze it! Down to its foundations!” 8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! 9 Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
6 Appoint a wicked man against him; let an accuser bring him to trial. 7 When he is tried, let him come forth guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin! 8 May his days be few; may another seize his goods! 9 May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow! 10 May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit! 11 May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! 12 Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children! 13 May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation! 14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out! 15 Let them be before the LORD continually; and may his memory be cut off from the earth! 16 For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death. 17 He loved to curse; let curses come on him! He did not like blessing; may it be far from him! 18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat, may it soak into his body like water, like oil into his bones! 19 May it be like a garment which he wraps round him, like a belt with which he daily girds himself! 20 May this be the reward of my accusers from the LORD, of those who speak evil against my life!
Jonah, as we heard in today’s reading, has obviously read these psalms very carefully and wants Yahweh to show no mercy to the citizens of Nineveh. One can easily imagine Jonah sitting under the shade of the castor oil plant, his arms crossed, a smug expression on his face, a camera crew from the local Fox News outlet trained on him as the perfectly coifed reporter asks him what he thinks Yahweh will do to Nineveh.
He’s thinking that Nineveh deserves total destruction.
Most of us would not want to admit to vengeful thoughts or desires.
The moral imperative to forgive is drummed into us at an early age.
We are told to kiss and make up, to shake hands, to use our words to resolve conflict, and so on.
But deep down we all know that vengeful thoughts and desires lurk.
It is not easy to desire God’s grace showering down on someone who has wronged us or wronged someone we care about.
It seems we are built to pursue self-interest or group interest to the exclusion, or even the detriment of other individuals or groups.
Our parable illustrates this today.
This parable is unique to Matthew’s account.
Allegorical interpretation has been piled high on this one over the centuries. What is asserted by those hired at the start of the day is not a complaint that they should have received more, but rather that those hired at the end of the day should have been paid less, even though it would have meant that those hired later would not have enough wage to subsist on.
It is a sad commentary on us humans that we often succumb to similar jealous instincts.
Permit me a couple of minutes to explore the context of this parable. Matthew has Jesus on the way to Jerusalem at the start of chapter 19.
On the way from Galilee to Jerusalem he has a large crowd following him seeking healings and instruction on how to live.
There is no one theme to this last journey through the region of Judea beyond the Jordan River.
Jesus seems to be wrapping up some of his earlier teaching and using individuals with no legal standing as the springboard for his teaching.
First he handles the question of divorce put to him by the Pharisees; this is significant because men could divorce their wives, but women had no legal standing to divorce their husbands.
Then children are brought to him for the second time and he states again that the reign of heaven belongs to them; children have no legal standing.
Then Jesus goes on to say how hard it will be for a rich man to enter the reign of heaven, implying that those of very low legal standing will enter.
Then Peter speaks on behalf the twelve disciples, asking “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.
What then shall we have?”
Jesus assures them of their eternal inheritance and concludes with, “But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”
Forsaking all the trappings of society that build up legal standing is the best way to enter into the reign of heaven with Jesus.
Then we come to today’s parable in which Jesus uses the day laborer to illustrate his teaching about the reign of heaven.
The day labor pool in Palestine then was not that different from the day labor pool here and now.
The land owner went to the agora, the marketplace, and chose able-bodied men to work for the day.
The amount of compensation offered would normally be subsistence wage, just enough for the man to buy food for his family for that day.
These are, once again, people of very low legal standing; the landowner has all the leverage in the so-called agreement or daily contract.
Following this parable Jesus foretells his passion for the third time to the twelve disciples.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee asks special favors for her sons which launches Jesus into a discourse on how the twelve should exercise authority.
Jesus uses the servant or slave as the role model for how he himself relates to the world in need of redemption and states that the twelve must take on the same role.
Finally, before entering Jerusalem, Jesus cures two blind men who are sitting by the roadside, who then follow him.
Our parable today, then, is part of a larger tapestry.
On one level Jesus clearly sends the message that human preoccupation with status will get us nowhere spiritually.
Jealously guarding our own prerogatives or envying the status or good fortune of others will only rob us of the physical, mental and psychic energy we need to follow Jesus.
On another level the Gospel writer is exhorting the Jewish Christians in his congregations to accept gracefully the fact that Yahweh has also chosen the Gentiles for salvation and that they may be late to the vineyard, but will still gain entrance into the reign of heaven.
It is difficult for us to comprehend just how mind-boggling this was for the Jewish followers of Jesus in those first few generations.
Applying all of this to our own situation here in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, 2,011 years into the Christian Era, we might ask ourselves,
“Who has low or no legal standing in our society; what can I do to alleviate their pain and anxiety?” and
“What prerogatives have I inherited or status do I possess that I guard so jealously that it blocks my spiritual growth; what do I need to do to grow?” and
“How can we forge a congregation of believers who model the servant hood of Jesus to our world?”
As we approach our annual meeting of the Sunday Assembly, these are fundamental questions that the Gospel of Jesus Christ places before us.
Listen to the dialogue of Jesus with his disciples just before today’s parable,
‘23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”’
We can take this last saying of Jesus and apply it to our Eucharistic gathering today. The gifts of our hands are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, not because we are so perfect, but because Yahweh, the Abba of Jesus loves us intimately.