Silver Jubilee

September 21, 2014 -- Silver Anniversary of Fr. Gregory Tatum’s Ordination
Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Phil. 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us justice is the permanent and constant will to render each person his due. One of my Dominican brothers says justice is the first virtue we learn. As children we may lack the vocabulary to describe reality as eloquently as St. Thomas, but we don’t have to be very grown up to know whether an outcome is fair, or whether we’ve gotten what we deserve.

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Which is the case in today’s gospel. When the workers hired early in the day saw what the latecomers were being paid, they reasonably assumed they would get more. Now, one can argue, as the vineyard owner does, that because the workers have received the wage they agreed upon, the owner has rendered each his due. There’s no question the vineyard owner has acted justly, but if we’re among those hired at dawn, it’s still hard to ignore the fact that we’ve worked hard all day in the heat and are getting no more than the workers hired at sunset, and this disproportionate wage is one reason Fr. Augustine Thompson doesn’t much care for this gospel passage.

But the disproportionate wage is the point of the gospel, or, at least, one of them. Our brother Gregory Tatum, whose ordination anniversary we celebrate today, is fond of saying “Jesus ain’t no wimp.” This means, of course, we can’t be, either. Gregory’s words are a warning to look out, because Jesus’ words today are pretty scary: in the Kingdom of God the first are last and the last first. This isn’t the way most of us order our lives, but then our first reading today tells us God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts our thoughts.   

And seeing things differently is very important in today’s gospel. Depending on how we look at it, today’s parable can teach us any number of lessons. If we look at it solely from the point of view of the workers hired early in the day, we learn that once we’ve agreed to undertake something for God we don’t get extra credit simply for doing what we’ve agreed to do. I once bragged to my mother that in the seventeen years I had served as treasurer in the various Dominican communities I’d been assigned to, I had always managed to get the communities’ books to balance — to the penny — at the end of the month. She looked at me, shrugged and said, “So what? That’s your job, isn’t it?”  

If we look at this parable only from the eyes of the workers hired early in the day it’s never going to be very satisfying. So perhaps we might try to identify with the workers hired at sundown. And here’s where Gregory’s knowledge comes in very, very handy. His years of Scripture study have equipped him to parse texts with the most erudite of his peers. But his commonplace wisdom has taught me to read the gospel with new eyes. He once pointed out these last workers didn’t agree on a wage with the vineyard owner; they simply “went into” the vineyard, happy, apparently, to be put to work because whatever they got would make the difference between eating that day and going to bed hungry. Whatever they ended up with would be far more than they could have hoped for.  

It’s the same with us. One modern writer has said that good days fall to the wise, but the best days of all fall to those who dare to be unwise. If we want to hold God to a contract, we will undoubtedly get precisely what we bargain for, but today’s gospel teaches we do far better to place our trust in God’s generosity.  

That generosity, finally, is what today’s gospel is all about. With Gregory as my guide, the little details of this parable have yielded a wealth of insights. For example, if we’ve ever wondered why the vineyard owner is so careless in his hiring practices, it’s because his grapes have to be harvested or they’ll spoil. There’s a marginal utility to those eleventh-hour hands: as the sun goes down, their value goes up.

There’s a desperation about the vineyard owner in today’s gospel, and that tells us a great deal about the passion underlying God’s love. The vineyard owner doesn’t count the cost of his workers; neither does God. Today, we learn we’re all worth a very great deal. That’s the sort of lesson that has made my association with Gregory so very, very valuable. He brings the light of the gospel to bear on everyday life.

In each of the gospel accounts, the evangelists are generally pretty clear about whom Jesus is talking to. Saint Matthew says Jesus preached today’s parable to his disciples, which means he’s preaching to us. He wants us to know that ours aren’t the only hands invited into the vineyard, just the first. And, therefore, the last in the kingdom.  

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God’s ways are not our ways, so there’s no room for pride in God’s vineyard, no matter who got here first. I arrived to serve at this altar forty years ago, Gregory only twenty-five. But the fact is, whoever we are, and however we’re situated, there’s always work to be done, and Jesus continually – and passionately – extends an invitation to ministry. As we make our pilgrimage through this third millennium in God’s vineyard, we have a couple of options: we can envy those who will be called the day after tomorrow, or we can rejoice that we’ve been called to share the task with our brother Gregory today.

--by Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.

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