18 September 2005: 25th Sunday of the Year
Matthew 20:1-16: The Workers in the Vineyard
A few things have to be said about the Gospel today. 1) Matthew only has this parable; 2) The vineyard owner normally goes to the market place only once, to hire the day’s laborers; on average, he hires all the manpower he needs for the day. 3) The structure of the story is a literary device to show a progressive contrast between the morning and the evening laborers, therefore, providing the setting for the story.
The point of the Gospel is simple. Just as a vineyard owner who hires laborers at different hours and times of the day and gives the same full salary to all, God rewards the Kingdom of God to all even to the latecomers. This is in contrast with what we know about justice: salaries are paid according to the labor rendered, and the hours spent at work.
This is very consoling to all those who think that it is too late to change. This parable is an encouragement to all Christians and a good thing to remember: God is concerned about the latecomers. The gesture of generosity comes from the love and kindness God himself.
And on our part, we do not seek a reward for every good thing we do; doing and serving God is itself the reward. This is easy to understand when you love someone. The lover— that is you — does not ask for a reward for all the good things you do for the one you love. Serving the beloved is pleasurable and enjoyable. The beloved himself or herself is the reward. This is what the happy prince did. His pleasure is giving out what he has to those he loved: the people in his city.
In The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde’s classic tale, the happy prince is nothing more than an exquisite statue gilded over with gold leaf, standing on a pedestal high above the city. He looked down upon it with his blue sapphire eyes and guarded his domain with his sword in which was embedded a priceless ruby.
One night, a small lost swallow landed wearily at the prince’s feet to rest. But before he could fall asleep, he felt a cascade of water pouring down on him. He looked up and saw that it was the happy prince crying. For the prince could see from his lofty perch a sick child begging his mother for an orange, while his poor mother worked with bleeding fingers embroidering the gown of a rich woman. “Swallow,” said the prince, “please stay with me. Stay with me tonight and be my messenger. The boy is so thirsty and the mother is so sad.” The bird agreed and, following the prince’s instructions, took the ruby from the sword and dropped it on the table next to the thimble of the woman.
The next day the prince saw a young writer in his garret, which was so cold that his fingers, were frozen and he could not write to finish his play. So the happy prince had the swallow pluck out one of his sapphire eyes, and flies it to the young playwright. The next day it was a little match girl whose matches had fallen into the water. She would sell none and her father would beat her severely. Again, the prince had the swallow bring his other sapphire eye to her.
At this point the swallow knew that he could not leave the sightless prince alone, and so he stayed to act as his eyes and to pull off, one piece at a time, the gold leaf from his body to bring to all those who were hurting. Finally, one freezing day, the prince was completely stripped of all his riches. He had given everything–his ruby, his sapphires, his gold leaf. The swallow, too, had given his all. The bitter cold that he should have left long ago got to him. In a last effort he flew up to the prince’s lips, kissed them, and fell dead at his feet. At that moment, the leaden heart of the happy prince snapped in two.
Finally, the townspeople, disgusted at the eyesore that the statue had become, tore it down, and melted it in a blast furnace. But the broken lead heart refused to melt, so the townspeople picked it up and tossed it beside the body of the dead swallow.
Looking down on earth, God said to one of his angels, “Bring me the two most precious things in that city.” The angel returned with the leaden heart and the dead swallow. “You have chosen rightly,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise the little bird shall sing forevermore, and in my city of gold, the happy prince shall praise me.”
St. Ignatius has a very good prayer that brings this point clearly: that working for God, knowing that we are doing what God wills for us, is itself the reward. It is a prayer for generosity.
Prayer for Generosity
Lord, teach us to be generous.
Teach us to serve you as you deserve
To give and not to count the cost.
To fight and not to heed the wounds.
To toil and not to seek for rest.
To labor and not to ask for reward.
Save that of knowing, that I do Your most holy will.