God's Word on Sunday: ‘The last will be first and the first will be last’

  • September 21, 2023

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 24 (Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16)

Isaiah calls upon us to seek the Lord while He may be found, and to call upon Him while He is near. Is God going anywhere? Will there be a time when God is not present?

Although originally addressed to the inhabitants of Judea in the sixth century B.C., Isaiah’s words are applicable to all who claim to seek or to worship God. We cannot really know God as long as our relationship is superficial and our understanding elementary. The problem is that the God many people seek is a mirror image of themselves. Their God thinks like they do, has the same values and perhaps even the same political or theological convictions. This God hates those whom they hate and loves those whom they love. It is easy to end up chasing an image of ourselves. Even a cursory reading of the Scriptures will make us uncomfortable with many of the ways in which God is presented. And there are certainly many human projections even in the text of the Scriptures themselves.

Isaiah had bad news for all those who believed they had God all figured out or contained in theological ideas and practices. God is utterly unlike us; in fact, there is a gulf separating the human from the divine. God thinks in ways far removed from human thought and God’s ways are not what we would expect. This was one of the main reasons why Jesus was so objectionable to some — He revealed God in human form, and that was too much for some to take. Jesus did not “behave” as a good prophet or man of God should — He said and did shocking things and fraternized with and accepted objectionable people. Jesus was unfazed by the labels that people carried, for He looked deep within their hearts and souls. He appealed mostly to the brokenhearted, the poor, the desperate and those with yearning hearts.

We need to engage in a serious quest for a deeper understanding of the divine heart and mind — and that means change and transformation on our part. This is the only way we will overcome the division, rancour, bigotry and polarization that tear our world apart.

Paul no longer feared death. In fact, part of him longed for it — being with the Lord made this an attractive option. But Paul realized that for those who were in Christ, living and dying were not the focus of concern or anxiety for they were two dimensions of the reality of Christian living. Both provide a means for Christ to be exalted and that is what matters. Every life has infinite worth, and it is not ours to give or to take, for that is God’s role.

It is very difficult to read the story of the workers in the vineyard without feeling uneasy or even a bit angry. It certainly appears that the owner was unfair and that those who worked all day in the heat deserved more than the latecomers who worked for only an hour. And yet they were all paid the same. The owner of the vineyard brushed aside their complaints, insisting that he was generous and that the workers had no grounds for grievances. But the story is meant to enrage people because it is driving home the point that God — the vineyard owner — does things very differently from humans. God’s ways are definitely not our ways. People like to think of themselves as more deserving than others. This applies in every aspect of life, but especially in our relationship with God. No person or group owns God or has an inside track. No one is more deserving than another, and no person or group is exalted at the expense of another.

Scripture makes it very clear that all humanity has fallen short of the glory of God — all have sinned. And yet God is merciful and chooses to offer forgiveness and salvation to all. But to receive this mercy we must approach God offering no excuses or indignant claims of righteousness or holiness. We are all one and we stand or fall together. God’s world is upside down in nature, and this is best illustrated by the closing comment of Jesus: the last will be first and the first will be last. And we have absolutely nothing to say about it.