Weekly Reflection (20 Sep 2020)

25th Sunday of Year A

Isaiah 55:6-9
Philippians 1:20-24,27
Matthew 20:1-16

Let us break free from the ways of the secular world, and embrace God’s ways – in love, in service, and in mercy.

Most of us strive to lead righteous lives. We may not be perfect, but we try our best. As we look around us in our society and in our community, we cannot help but be impacted by others who undertake acts of evil. Their acts of debauchery and immorality displease us. Their acts of anger, envy, greed and pride often hurt us and those we love. We suffer from their sinful acts and we thought, “this is unjust!” We would like to see justice served. To many of us, we secretly (or even openly) hope to see God exact justice on those who hurt us, that their sins be punished; and they suffer the ultimate justice at end of their lives on earth!

This was the attitude of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He saw his younger brother showed great disrespect to their father by asking for his inheritance while their father was still alive. He probably heard how the younger brother wasted the inheritance away in a foreign land “in dissolute living” (Lk 15:13). In spite of that, the older brother stayed faithful to the father, and labour hard for the father. After the younger brother lost everything and hired himself out to foreigners to undertake the most undignified of all work – the feeding of pigs – the elder brother must have thought, “good ridden to him!” Many of us are like the older brother. We enjoy seeing our enemies suffer and punished for the sufferings they inflicted upon us and those we love.

Then something amazing happened. The younger brother came to his senses, returned home and asked for the father’s forgiveness. Even more amazingly, the father forgave the son without reservation and restored his status as an heir to the family, by bestowing a robe, a ring and sandals on him (Lk 15:22). When the elder brother heard this, he was greatly displeased. He felt that his years of labour was unappreciated and his sense of justice was shattered. (Lk 15:29-30).

It is the same with the Parable of the Workers in this week’s Gospel. In the parable, the vineyard owner went out to hire workers for his vineyard early in the morning (verse 1), again at about 9 o’clock (verse 3), and finally very late in the day at about 5 o’clock (verse 9). On each occasion, the vineyard owner promised the workers a fair daily wage. At the end of the day, the owner fulfilled his promise and pay everyone their fair daily wage. Like the older brother in the Parable of Prodigal Son, the workers who worked a full day became indignant: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (verse 12)

The two parables illustrate two fundamental truths about God’s mercy. The first is this: that many great sinners will have their sins forgiven at the last moment, even at their deathbed. That on the Last Day, great saints and great sinners both share the same inheritance from God. My dear brothers and sisters. Does this sit uncomfortably with you? How do I feel about those who gravely wronged and hurt me receiving the same reward as those who live their lives in righteousness? Is my attitude no difference to that of the older brother and the workers who started work early in the day?

In Jesus’ time, “the usual daily wage” (verse 2) is not only a fair wage for a day’s work, but was also the minimum amount a labourer needed to support his family for a day. Out of compassion and generosity, the vineyard owner paid all the workers a fair daily wage, irrespective of how many hours they worked. It is similar with the Kingdom of Heaven. A soul cannot but enter the kingdom of God fully, irrespective whether the person was a great saint; or lived a life of evil but only repented at his/her deathbed. When Jesus suffered and died on the cross, he died for all of us – saints or sinners alike. His suffering paid for all our sins – venial or mortal ones alike.

In last week’s Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35), the first servant received mercy from the king but was not able to extend the same mercy to his fellow servant. My brothers and sisters, if I find myself thinking like the early vineyard workers and the older brother, is it because I have not fully comprehend God’s mercy that He extended over me? Do I realise that I too am a sinner? Do I realise that there are many great men and women who lead much holier and righteous lives that I do? Just as God forgives my sins and offers His full inheritance to me, He is offering the same to many great saints who have led or are leading lives much holier than me. For these holy men and women, instead of feeling indignant and envious, they are rejoicing. For as Jesus said, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). Hence, the second fundamental truth about God’s mercy is this: that we are all sinners. Just as we rejoice at God’s mercy on us, we should rejoice too at God’s mercy on others, including those who gravely wronged and hurt us.

In truth, our righteous acts are not to earn our entry into Heaven. Our righteous acts are simply a great privilege that thr Lord gave us, to be His instruments on earth, serving and loving humanity. It is fruitful labour. As St Paul explained in the Second Reading. “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” (verse 22-24) Righteous living fundamentally is about following in the footstep of Jesus, in love, in forgiveness and in service to humanity. As St Paul realised, there is great joy in discipleship. To frame righteous living in the secular value system of virtues and rewards is not God’s way. As the First Reading explains, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (verse 8-9) For God’s way is the higher way.

May God instil in us a heart of love, service and mercy. Shalom to you, my brothers and sisters.

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