Ars Praedicandi: 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

It is supposedly a true story.
A Brit was on holiday in Greece in the late 1990’s,
pre-iPhone days.
Walking past a public phone that started ringing, on a whim,
he answered it, and to his shock, it was his bank
calling him about some unusual activity on his account.

When the banker started asking questions,
the Brit wanted to know how they knew his location
and even acquired this phone number.
They told him it was the number they had on file.
He said that can’t be right because this was a public phone…

After an awkward silence, the banker admitted
that instead of dialing his phone number
they dialed his account number,
which happened to be the exact number of a phone
in another country that he walked past
at precisely the time they called.

Mathematicians are welcome to calculate the odds of that happening.

Dictionaries usually define coincidence as a remarkable
concurrence of events without apparent causal connection.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, thought it was a literary device
that propelled plays such as Romeo and Juliet.

Then there was Albert Einstein who defined coincidence as: “God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

The specter of coincidence often comes to mind
when preparing to preach. I often wonder:

Is it a coincidence that scriptural texts about dignity
surface during the election wars that plague us
with such increased ferocity?

Or is it coincidental that other texts about peace
occur in the wake of horrifying acts of violence
that too often disrupt our society?

More to the point, is it simply coincidental
that while one of the largest unions in the country
is in a major wage dispute with the big 3 car companies and
a gospel tale about workers and wages
that only surfaces once every 3 years
is center stage this morning?
Maybe God is not so anonymous.

Frequently, folk use scripture for their own purposes
like supporting particular causes, or
condemning certain practices.

In that vein, some might think that this gospel
is an announcement that Jesus is a pro-union guy
promoting fair wages.

Or, conversely, that the Son of God has a soft spot for slackers
who only roll out of bed in late afternoon
and saunter to work when the sun is about to set,
while everyone else has labored through the heat of the day
and are about ready to pack up and go home.

But like other segments of God’s Word,
this is a multi-layered revelation
with unforeseen twists and turns.

It is not surprising that this gospel could offend our sense of fair play.
That becomes clear if we monetize the parable…

In a wine growing state like California,
the minimum wage for laborers is $15.50 an hour.
The workday in this gospel was an arduous 12 hours:
6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
According to California standards,
the workers hired first made $186 at $15.50 an hour.

Those who showed up at 9:00, however, made almost $21 an hour;
those who showed up at noon, $31 an hour;
those at 3:00, $62.00 an hour;
and the 5:00 p.m. shift $186 per hour.

Clearly unfair, especially if you imagine the last ones were hired
through prejudicial eyes (hinted at in some translations of this text)
which speaks of them as being idle.

Theologian Pablo Jimenez addresses this insinuation,
taking on commentators who ignore that seasonal workers usually have to attend several “work calls” during the day.

He writes: “They go from job site to job site until they are hired. They may even go to a new job site after completing an assignment. In short, these sad remarks advance one of the main tenets of the ideology of the powerful: the idea that the poor are lazy.[1]

So this gospel is not about God coddling the idle.

Maybe even more surprising,
the gospel does not simply concern holy generosity,
for the landowner is not a stand-in for God,
at least not one I would like to embrace.

He does not oversee a family farm,[2]
since those had largely disappeared under Roman rule,
especially because of the burden of taxes that forced families to lose their land to the rich and powerful.

Our generous hero in this gospel
is analogous to a plantation owner,
who is a cog in an oppressive power structure
that pays folk only enough to feed their family for a day,
in joyless and exhausting working conditions.

His singular act of generosity, highlighted in this gospel,
does not make him God-like.

One commentator pushes even further, suggesting that
this parable is not essentially about the generosity of God.
If that was all it was, it would remain basically toothless.

He continues: talking about God’s goodness costs nothing
but it also changes nothing.
If Jesus had only talked about God’s generosity
He would not have been nailed to the cross.

There must be something more volatile here,
which is Jesus’ insistent vision of God’s reign,
breaking into quarrelsome and contentious communities.

While we may not recognize it at first, this parable
realistically describes human society
in which every woman or man is for her- or himself
each struggling for their own existence.

It is a community of endless conflict between those “on top” and those “on the bottom,”
where rivalry thrives, especially between those
who belong to the same social class.

From this perspective, the key to this parable is not the landowner
but the grumbling workers,
who continuously compare themselves to each other
fueling mistrust and deep tensions.
They have to fight for their rights,
for they live in a world built on rivalry,
where, in order to survive, they have no other choice.

Into this factious society
emerges the Jesus of the beatitudes,
the Jesus of two great commandments,
the Jesus who promotes community over individualism
friendship over servitude,
mercy over merit, and in the process
exposes those of hardened hearts and closed minds,
the scoundrel and wicked in today’s first reading:
and it is that prophetic exposé that got him killed.

The grumbling of the original hires
mirrors the grumbling of Jesus’ contemporaries
insulted, even outraged at the new things he was promoting
about the graciousness of Samaritans, the lovability of sinners
and the value of every stranger.

In a nutshell this parable concerns
the struggle for the common good,
revealed in the clash of a society built on competition & rivalry,
colliding with the Jesus vision.
The only-begotten’s vision of God’s reign
is a society without conflict and comparison.
in which people are wed together
by working to build a peaceable kingdom.
This creates a solidarity that does not divide
but enables us to share in each other’s suffering
and rejoice in each other’s joys.

In today’s gospel, the new society has not yet come to pass
and, at this moment in history,
it has not yet come to pass either.

Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of blessed memory
was an unrelenting advocate for establishing common ground
not only in a polarized world
and in a fractured religious landscape
but also in a divided church …

more specifically, this divided local church
whose rifts became apparent to him
in his early years here.

His hope was that a common ground initiative
would help parishes move beyond any liberal/conservative
divide and become places of shared and affirming care.

I know how profoundly committed Old St. Pat’s is
to being a place of common ground for all
and over and over again stands up for the common good.
But, despite all the good work today,
even here the Jesus vision has not fully come to pass.

So we weekly return here, to this sanctuary of inclusivity
to renew our commitment to the Jesus vision:
a society void of rivalry and competition
that affirms diversity as grace,
difference as strength,
and variation as beauty.

And, we brace ourselves with the grace of the Word,
the nourishment of the table
and the inspiration of the poet’s[3] blessing:
in time of violence,
in time of division
or whenever the world resists the kingdom vision of the Christ.

And, we pray: which is to say
this blessing
is [for] always…

which is to say
there is no place
this blessing
does not long
to cry out
in lament,
to weep its words
in sorrow,
to scream its lines
in sacred rage.

Which is to say,
there is no day
this blessing ceases
to whisper
into the ear
of the dying,
the despairing,
the terrified.

Which is to say,
there is no moment
this blessing refuses
to sing itself
into the heart
of the hated
and the hateful,
the victim
and the victimizer,
with every last
ounce of hope
it has.

Which is to say
there is none
that can stop it,
none that can
halt its course,
none that will
still its cadence,
none that will
delay its rising,
none that can keep it
from springing forth
from the mouths of us
who hope,
from the hands of us
who act,
from the hearts of us
who love,
from the feet of us
who will not cease
our stubborn, aching
marching, marching

until this blessing
has spoken
its final word,
until this blessing
has breathed
its benediction
in every place,
in every tongue:


[1] Pablo A. Jiménez, “The Laborers of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16): A Hispanic Homiletical Reading,” Journal for Preachers (Advent, 1997) 35-40, here 37.

[2] Much of what follows is reliant upon Gerhald Lohfink, The Forty Parables of Jesus (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2021), pp. 90ff.