“AS Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the custom post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.” (Matthew 9:9) This excerpt from of the Gospel Reading on the Feast of St. Matthew led me to an insight to this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 20:1-16) on the Parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
Let’s look at the parable. A landowner went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. He promised them the usual daily wage, and they agreed. Then, the landowner hired other workers—some he hired at nine o’clock in the morning, others at noontime, a few more at three o’clock in the afternoon, and some more at five o’clock. At sunset, he paid them all the same usual daily wage.
Of course, the workers that the landowner initially hired were surprised at the action of the landowner. They didn’t see it fair that other people who worked late received an equal amount of wage. “These last ones worked only for one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and heat?” they complained.
The landowner’s decision to pay the workers the same amount does appear unfair. How could an employer treat everyone he hired at different times the same way? But parables like this one, as we know, should not be taken literally. They are stories with a surplus of meaning. In the case of the parables of Jesus, they speak of the heart and the surprising ways of God, which many of us find hard to fathom. They remind us of the words of today’s First Reading: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways are 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.” (Isaiah 6:9)
To make the parable easy to understand, we need to look at it from the view of Christian vocation. God calls each one of us to be workers in his vineyard, and many of us respond differently, some at various stages of life.
It’s true in the case of Matthew. He was a well-known tax collector who defrauded people by putting burdens of additional tax on people for his benefit. Deep in his heart, he must have felt that he was not living a moral life, especially when he would hear Jesus criticize the dishonesty of Scribes, Pharisees, and tax collectors. Finally, he decided to change his ways and followed Jesus.
It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to discover the beauty and true meaning of a Christian vocation—whether it is to be Christian parent or single, a priest, a religious, or a lay church worker. God is happy with people’s tardy response or conversion as he is with those who those who responded early. And on our part, we—those who have been actively living our faith for quite a while—should not be judging or condemning those who came in late in following the ways of God.
This insight reminds me of a “late bloomer” in ministry—a woman who discovered the joy of serving the Lord later in her life. She was busy working as a nurse, and not seeing her profession in the light of her Christian faith, despite having a brother who is a priest. Later on, she started getting involved in her parish by volunteering as a Eucharistic Minister for the assembly and the sick.. She felt happy about her service to God and even complained to her priest-brother why he did not encourage her to become active in her church.
In a world where people, including our children, are distracted by secular values and principles that are opposed to the Gospel of Jesus, we need to pray that everyone comes to a deeper conversion to realize the joy of following and serving the Lord.
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From a Filipino immigrant family, Reverend Rodel G. Balagtas was ordained to the priesthood from St. John’s Seminary in 1991. He served as Associate Pastor at St. Augustine, Culver City (1991-1993); St. Martha, Valinda (1993-1999); and St. Joseph the Worker, Canoga Park (1991-2001). In 2001, he served as Administrator Pro Tem of St. John Neumann in Santa Maria, CA, until his appointment as pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary, Los Angeles, in 2002, which lasted 12 years. His term as Associate Director of Pastoral Field Education at St. John’s Seminary began in July 2014.