Sunday, September 24
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 20: 1 – 16A
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o’clock,
the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.’
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o’clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o’clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
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.’
When those who had started about five o’clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, 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.’
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?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
I assume if you are reading this, you have an internet connection. With your forbearance, I am going to channel my English Lit professors and do a “multimedia” reflection.
One of the more faithful adaptations of a book to the screen is the 1980’s BBC TV-miniseries “Brideshead Revisited.” Unlike other adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s semi-autobiographical novel, it does not strip out the Catholic content but rather embraces it. As a result, it is not afraid to portray a powerful Catholic deathbed scene.
In this scene, everyone in the room–a dying English nobleman, his Italian mistress, his oldest daughter, and the agnostic narrator– is living in objectively grave sin. The dying English Lord has abandoned his family and the farmers and servants of his country estate, living many carefree years cavorting with his mistress in Italy. The same mistress is now praying fervently for him at the foot of his deathbed. Next to her is his neglected daughter, who rashly married a divorced man outside of the Church and is now conducting (under the same roof in which her husband resides) a long-term affair with the narrator. The narrator has coolly abandoned his own wife and infant children in his adulterous liaison with her. Into this less-than-pious milieu stumbles a common parish priest, whose decidedly un-aristocratic brogue betrays his provincial provenance.
You will find a video link below. I ask you to watch the video (you can stop at time index 6:30).
From one perspective, this entire scene is an absurdity and an affront to justice. Why should this self-centered English aristocrat, surrounded by his unearned wealth and noble privileges, his mistress and his long-neglected daughter, be saved? Why should he get to wallow in sin and selfishness his entire life and then, through sheer good fortune, live just long enough to be able to repent at the very end?
But that is not what the agnostic narrator sees in that weakly made sign of the cross, the sign of repentance of a terminally-ill milord. He doesn’t see an unjust absurdity; he sees instead that this “was not a little thing” and it revived in his cold, cynical heart a phrase learned in childhood catechism class, “of ‘the veil of the Temple being rent from top to bottom’.” The nobleman’s deathbed repentance marks the moment when the narrator’s own repentance begins.
Let us never begrudge someone their salvation. Unlike the workers in today’s Gospel, we should not be envious because God is absurdly generous. Our own salvation, like the deathbed penitent, is an unearned, unmerited gift from God. But that gift is not without a cost. Salvation may seem to come absurdly easy, whether it be the napping infant at the baptismal font or a libertine gasping out an Act of Contrition in the last moments of life. But that generously-bestowed salvation comes at the same great cost: the death of Our Lord upon the Cross.