Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 20)

A man named Bryan told this story from his youth. He grew up in the rural south. One of the “rites of passage” was learning to use a cross saw to cut timber. His father took him out to the woods one day and they began to cut an old log. The one end of the log was rotten. As the father and son worked the saw the one end fell off and broke into pieces due to the rot. One piece resembled a horse’s head. When they were done for the day, Brian decided to save the piece and to make something from it as a present for his father.

He took the “horse head” and attached it to a piece of two-by-four lumber. He then found four decent sized branches from the woods and made “legs” which he attached to the two-by-four. Then he added a piece of rope for his masterpiece. The final touch was to hammer some nails half way in on both sides of the two-by-four. He put a bow on the front and at Christmas presented it to his father.

The father was gracious as he looked at the work and carefully said, “It’s beautiful. What is it exactly?” “It’s a tie rack, Dad.” Bryan’s father thanked him and said he would make great use of the tie rack. Since it did not sit too well on its legs the father put it in the closet, leaning it against the wall so it would not fall.

Years went by and one day Bryan was home visiting his parents. He happened to go into the closet and sees his “masterpiece” still there held up by the wall, full of ties. He later recalled that when he first gave his father the gift, he really thought it was “good,” worthy of a spot in a museum. Seeing it now he realized it was not as good as he thought when he was a child.

As he reflected on his father keeping this gift all those years, he came to the conclusion that his father had received and used his gift not “because of its goodness but out of his goodness.”

The story can remind us of God’s goodness to us. We sometimes refer to that goodness as graciousness. God is gracious and shares his goodness with us because he loves us. His goodness flows from who he is. He loves because he is love. He does not love the same way we do for our love is imperfect. This does not mean our love is not good or not abundant but, because we are human, it is not yet complete. Hence, we sense in ourselves the desire and need to love more.

Perhaps this is one aspect of Isaiah’s reflection on God’s generosity expressed in mercy when he writes: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

Jesus offers us a reflection on God’s gracious love in the Parable of the Generous Landowner. The landowner goes into the town looking for workers. He hires them at the beginning of the day. He returns at different times of the day to see that there are some who are still unemployed so he hires them. The last group he hires work only for about an hour. When it is time to pay the workers, he first begins paying those who were hired last. They receive a full-day’s pay for only working one hour.

Jesus uses the parables to invite us to consider some aspect of the Kingdom of God. He wants us to reflect and ponder their meaning and the analogies presented. At this point we reflect on the generosity of the landowner as an image of God’s mercy and love. Those workers who worked only an hour did not deserve what they received; they did not “earn” it, so to speak. The full day’s wages were freely given. The landowner was gracious and freely gave.

So it is with God — he loves freely. He is not compelled to do so by contract or agreement. He pours out his love and mercy beyond what we expect or deserve.

The parable shifts now to the other workers. Needless to say, those workers hired last were surprised at the magnificent generosity of the landowner. As we follow the story, as though hearing it fresh, we also would be surprised. Yet the unexpected is already woven into the story. The landowner hires the first workers at dawn and they agree to a day’s wage. Nothing too unusual about this. The fact that the landowner would go four more times to the market place hiring those standing idle, is something unusual. Normally workers would be hired at the beginning of the day so a full day’s work could be done and the owner could attend himself to other things.

Now as the workers who worked longer come in they receive the same wages. Their expectation in seeing the generosity of the landowner toward those hired last was that they would receive more. Now that is overturned. They received what was just, what they agreed to at the beginning of the day, and this too was generous. Unfortunately, they are envious and blinded from seeing his graciousness. Their envy prohibits them from rejoicing in his goodness.

Jesus invites us to consider the Father’s love and mercy in our lives. His graciousness is sometimes recognized, sometimes not, but it is always present. At times, our awareness might be like those in the parable who were hired last. At times, it may be like those who were hired first.

The stable and unchanging element is he who loves. God’s love and mercy are ever present because he is love, he is mercy.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.