‘It’s never too late’ is a common saying today, and that fits the gospel we hear. But a rather different saying may found in the first reading – ‘carpe diem’ – grab the opportunity today, for you do not know how long it will be available.
These verses are close to the end of the second prophet whose words are collected in chapters 40-55 of the book named ‘Isaiah’ after he first prophet of that name. He/she never mentions a name or history, but scholars use the name Second Isaiah (sometimes is seen as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’). The preaching was to the exiles in Babylon who had been transported in the 6th century BCE by Nebuchadnezzar when he defeated Jerusalem.
Second Isaiah’s prophecies have a universality and poetic quality that have made them favourites of Christians, so they are often used in the liturgy. This selection may be taken as a general call to anyone who may be wavering, weak in faith or practice or anxious about their sinfulness. At the time he wrote, Second Isaiah was speaking to exiles, and may have felt some urgency in the words ‘while He is still to be found’ – warning the wavering exiles to make the decision to return and rebuild the wasted city of Jerusalem while they had permission to leave. A possibility is that the prophet was referring to the frequent call in the Hebrew Bible to ‘seek the Lord’ in the Temple. Often in this book, God’s call to all, and not just Hebrews, is emphasised and so God may be found anywhere.
Second Isaiah may also have observed that exiles had slipped from living by the Law, and so the reminder that that God is always ready to forgive. ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts’ is a good expression of how far from us the full reality of God is, but in the context it may be about ‘rich in forgiveness’. There is a human weakness for holding on to blame for wrongs against us, or any grievance, and finding it hard to forgive and also to seek for revenge. God however is ready to forgive even before we even ask.
Psalm 144/145:2—3, 8-9,17-18
This is an ‘alphabetic’ psalm in Hebrew as each line starts with the letters of the alphabet. This is lost in translations, but it explains why the order of ideas seems arbitrary. Our verses today are drawn from various parts of the Psalm sharing the theme of God’s love, and fits well with the first reading.
We will be hearing from this Letter for the next four weeks. The background, as described by Brendan Byrne, SJ in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, is this: Philippi is named for the founder, Philip II of Macedonia, and was an important and prestigious Roman colonia. It did not seem to have a large Jewish population and the converts may have been predominantly Gentile. The beginning and end of St Paul’s mission there is described by Luke in Acts 16:11-40. Acts does not detail how long Paul spent there, but to have formed the close community he writes to he must have worked there for some time. Women were prominent in the community from the beginning and some are named in the Letter.
St. Paul writes while he was a prisoner, likely in Ephesus, not too far from Philippi which would make the travel between the two cities easy, as it appears in the Letter. Paul seems to have had an especially close relationship with this church he had founded, and he writes warmly and personally to them. (To some communities, he feels the need to write scolding letters, for example there is a striking difference in tone between Philippians and Galatians.)
In today’s reading, Paul has some anxiety about what will be the result of his imprisonment – release or execution. He explains how he sees good in either case. The last verse we hear begins a new section, with his usual style of advice on Christian living. The whole reading is full of what matters most to Paul at all times: Jesus Christ and union with him in mind and heart.
I find the commentary by R. T. France helpful in interpreting this difficult parable, which is found only in Matthew. This section is framed between two sayings of ‘the last being the first’ although the liturgy does not include the first one (Matthew 19:30). This paradox reversal is a reminder that God’s actions do not always meet our expectations.
The parable begins as do many of Jesus’ teachings with a recognizable situation, but like many of his stories, it shortly leads to surprises. We are not told why the landowner keeps going back to hiring new workers and the first listeners may have begun to wonder about that. They would understand the situation of the time when there were no welfare benefits for the unemployed. If they did not find work, they had no money to support themselves and family. (In our times, similar destitution can still happen in rich societies.) The word used in the translation – ‘idle’ – France says should not be taken as often today, meaning deliberately doing nothing. Rather as they themselves explain, they are not working because no one has hired them when they are willing to work. The owner’s ‘extraordinary behaviour’ shows he was acting compassionately to relieve their hardship. This much at least some of the first listeners could have understood. Then comes the shock of the reward: all get the same pay.
France: ‘The reader instinctively sympathizes with the aggrieved workers. It doesn’t seem fair.’ While the landowner is “technically correct” that the first workers got what they agreed for, why do we still feel that something is wrong?’ (This are not an employment practice we would commend today.) ‘But the kingdom of heaven does not operate on the basis of commercial convention. God rules by grace, not by desert.’ God’s offer of love and salvation is pure gift, none of us has deserved it, even if we are tempted to feel we have ‘earned’ something for accepting that grace and trying to live as God asks. The parable, France says, ‘helps readers to re-examine how far their reactions are still governed by human ideals of deserving rather than by the uncalculating generosity of the kingdom of heaven…. The blessing of eternal life is the same for all. Some are not more saved than others.’
Like Luke’s parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’ (15:11-32) Jesus is calling us to rejoice in God’s generosity, to be happy that even those whose repentance comes late in the day will be received by a loving Father. If God is generous to others (as the lord says of himself in the parable) we should rejoice, for he has also been generous to us in spite of any of our failings.