'Turn back to the Lord who is rich in forgiving'
(Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday touch on two important aspects of our relationship with God and our life of faith in him. Like the prophets before him Jesus summoned people urgently to repent and to place their lives under God's rule. But he also proclaimed God's patience and generosity, his readiness to wait for people to turn to him, his eagerness to welcome them into friendship with him, no matter how long they wait before approaching him.
To begin Mass we acknowledge the grudging or half-hearted elements in our own approach to God and we ask him to forgive us and strengthen our faith.
The appeal that Jesus made to people in his proclamation of God's Kingdom - or the Kingdom of Heaven as St. Matthew preferred to call it in his gospel - had two main aspects to it.
Like the Old Testament prophets Jesus often preached in very blunt and challenging language. He often tried to provoke people into changing the direction of their lives by criticising, fiercely, the low standards of their faith and holiness and justice.
But on the other hand he also went out of his way to emphasise God's gentleness and generosity, his patience in the face of repeated failure, his unfailing desire to draw people into closer friendship with him and the way he actively changes people through their contact with him.
In other words, in Jesus' preaching, spiritual growth and holiness involves a joint effort between God and ourselves. "God doesn't save us without us", as St. Augustine said. And both these aspects are present I think in the readings for the Mass this Sunday.
The few lines from the prophet Isaiah in the first reading emphasise the first aspect. "Seek the Lord while he is still to be found," he cries out. Get rid of sinful motives, abandon selfish and wicked behaviour, and turn back to God, who will always welcome you.
The element of urgency in Isaiah's words is typical of the prophets' style of preaching. Life is short, Isaiah is saying. Time is limited. The sooner we turn to God the better, because the stage that we reach by the end of our lives, in terms of our spiritual and moral development, determines how we will spend eternity.
People who dedicate their whole life to serving their own interests, manipulating others for their own gain, turning a blind eye to every instance of suffering and injustice that doesn't affect them personally - by the time they reach the end of their life it's too late to start invoking God's unlimited compassion and patience. The redeemed way of living God offers us begins now, in this life, and we have to produce at least a small spark of self-giving and loving motivation for him to work on.
These were the vivid terms the prophets used to persuade people to change the direction of their lives and embrace God's priorities and purposes.
Isaiah goes on to say, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways it is the Lord who speaks".
When we start to "turn to God", in the language of the Bible, we start to sense a shift in our moral priorities, a change in the values and appetites and goals we pursue in life. It's normal and natural to want to be happy, to be materially comfortable, emotionally secure, free from illness and so on - and most people spend a lot of energy trying to create those conditions for themselves and their families.
But God's ways are not our ways and the experience of many people who have genuinely turned to God - whether in some dramatic incident or through a very slow and gradual process - is that they start to adopt a completely different set of purposes in their life. They start to move in a different direction.
The more they come under God's influence the more they feel drawn to the values Christ identified as the way of God's Kingdom: do not store up treasure on earth but place your trust and security in God; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, do not oppose evil with evil, but if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other; don't worry about food and drink or about clothes - it's the pagans who busy themselves with such things.
God's Kingdom adds up to a reversal of all the principles of comfort and security and self-interest that most people take for granted, in Jesus' time as much as in ours. I often think that in a society like ours, as long as individual Christians or groups of church members are carrying out the accepted and approved activities like raising money for good causes and organising social events and coffee mornings and so on, people can cope with that form of religion and they applaud the Church's contribution to the community.
It's when people turn to God in a more radical way and start living the actual values of the Kingdom that they begin to appear a bit odd and out of step. Their renunciation of the whole principle of self-interest makes them disconcerting. They’re dismissed by other people as stupid or eccentric - because as long as people’s motives are more or less worldly they won’t be able to see the sense of God's ways and God's thoughts.
That same truth lies behind the parable Jesus tells in today's gospel reading.
We understand the idea of paying workers the same wage for doing the same amount of work. We understand the idea of people being paid so much money for every hour that they work: the more work, the bigger the wage. It's a matter of ordinary justice, and any departure from the standards of ordinary justice causes resentment - as it does in the parable.
But the Kingdom of God - God's way of dealing with us and the patterns of relationships that take shape when God rules in a situation - go beyond the standards of ordinary justice. In our relationship with God, Jesus is saying, those who turn to him at the eleventh hour belong as fully to the Kingdom as those who have been working the whole day, “in all the heat”.
Isaiah's point was that we can never turn to God too early in our lives: time is short and the sooner we place ourselves under his influence the better. Jesus' point is that it's never too late to turn to God and to start sharing his life.
Right up to the last moment, and regardless of how much someone has been unaware of God or deliberately excluded him from the actions and decisions in their life, God will always react with unlimited generosity. He's ready to welcome anyone and everyone into the circle of his own grace and holiness and to transform them through contact with him. In Jesus' image, God is always ready to pay the last-comer as much as the first.
So to my mind those are some of the aspects of this Sunday's readings that we can relate to our own life of faith, and also to the lives of many others who might not yet have reached the point of committing themselves wholeheartedly to the way of God's Kingdom - but who hopefully will one day!