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25th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Isaiah 55:6-9
Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Philippians 1:20b-24, 27
Matthew 20:1-16

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for mankind, and that is the reason we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of This Sunday's Reading: God's Generosity
One of God's many attributes is His generosity.  He is unlimited in His acts that demonstrate His love and mercy.  In the time of the prophet Isaiah (8th century BC), the children of Israel began to take God's blessings for granted and failed to be grateful for His generosity.  As a result, they did not produce the "good fruit" of righteousness, and in judgment for their wickedness, God punished His people for their sins.  And yet, as Isaiah told the people in our First Reading, God is always generous to forgive the repentant sinner and to show His mercy.  God is not like human beings who harbor resentment and fail to forgive past wrongs.  God's salvation is freely extended to His covenant people and to the people of all nations who seek a relationship with Him, for He is both generous and merciful.

The Responsorial Psalm tells us that our loving God is near to all who call upon Him.  Our Lord hears the prayers and petitions of all who come to Him, not because they have worked to deserve it, but because God is merciful and generous. 

In the Second Reading, St. Paul writes that we must conduct ourselves in a manner that is worthy of Christ.  Paul testifies that he will continually honor Christ in his body.  He will honor the Lord whether he lives and continues his apostolic work of spreading the Gospel of salvation in a life that belongs to Christ through his Christian baptism, or whether he is martyred and can bear his witness of Christ in his death.

In today's Gospel Reading, Jesus speaks about God's generosity.  He challenges the misconception of God's gifts as merely a reward for services rendered in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  The Lord calls professing Christians to serve as laborers in His vineyard that is Jesus' Kingdom of the Church.  God calls upon His Christian children to share the Gospel message of salvation and to bear the fruits of righteousness that are a sign to others to come to faith and believe in the promises of our generous and merciful God. 

Have you answered the Lord's call to labor in His vineyard?  Do you acknowledge the Lord's blessings, and are you thankful for His mercy and forgiveness in your life?  We demonstrate our gratitude to our Lord and Savior in the willing labor of our Christian witness.  It is our righteous behavior as Christians, living in the obedience of faith to Christ and His Church that is a testimony of our devotion and gratitude for His generosity in calling us, and all people, to eternal salvation and a final home with Him in Heaven.  

The First Reading Isaiah 55:6-9 ~ An Invitation to Grace
6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near.  7 Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked his thoughts: let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.  8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  9 As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.

Israel was the "vine" God planted and nurtured with abundant blessings, preparing His covenant people to bear the "good fruit" of righteousness that would be a sign of God to the Gentile nations (Is 5:1-2a).  However, Israel took God's gifts for granted, and in their ingratitude, they failed to produce "good fruit"—the good deeds that would be a sign of God's grace to the other nations of the earth (Is 5:2b-7).  In a redemptive judgment meant to call His people to repentance, God allowed conquerors to overrun His "vineyard" (Is 5:8-30).  Our reading is Isaiah's call to the people of Israel to repent their sins, to return to God, and to again receive His grace and mercy.  God is not like human beings who harbor resentment and fail to forgive past wrongs (verses 6-8).  God freely extends His gift grace to the people of all nations who seek Him, for He is both generous and merciful (verse 9).

Responsorial Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18 ~ The Generosity and Mercy of God
The response is: "The Lord is near to all who call upon him."

2 Every day will I bless you, and I will praise your name forever and ever.  3 Great is the LORD and highly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.
Response:
8 The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.  9 The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.
Response:
17 The LORD is just in all his ways and holy in all his works.  18 The LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.
Response:

The title of Psalm 145 is Praise of David.  It is one of the alphabetical psalms constructed by using a letter of the Hebrew alphabet to begin each verse.  In this poem of praise attributed to David, he commits himself to praising his Lord and being grateful for God's blessings every day (verses 1-2).  St. John Chrysostom wrote: "Devotion to praise is a mark of the truly filial heart.  He who praises the Lord every day will praise him for the eternal Day" (Expositio in Psalmos, 144.2).

In verses 8-9 and 17, he enumerates God's attributes, quoting from Exodus 34:6-7, which refers to the God of the Covenant and the goodness He extends to all.  The attributes he lists are:

  1. Grace
  2. Mercy
  3. Slow to anger
  4. Great kindness
  5. Goodness
  6. Compassion
  7. Just
  8. Holy

The fact that God hears those who call upon Him in sincerity and responds with kindness and salvation to all who love Him and invoke His Holy Name is evidence of these attributes (verse 18). 

The Second Reading Philippians 1:20b-24, 27 ~ Christian Conduct
20b Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.  21 For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. 22 If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.  And I do not know which I shall choose.  23 I am caught between the two.  I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better.  24 Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.  27 Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ.

Our Second Reading is from St. Paul's letter to the Christian community at Philippi in Macedonia (northern Greece).  The city was on the border with Thrace on the Via Egnatia, the Roman road that ran east to west through those two regions.  The church of Philippi was the first Christian community founded by St. Paul when he traveled to Europe during his second missionary journey in c. AD 50 or 51.  Acts of Apostles give a detailed account of his visit to the city (Acts 16:12-40).

20b Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. 
St. Paul writes that he will honor Christ in his body. He will honor Christ whether he lives and continues his apostolic work of spreading the Gospel of salvation in a life that belongs to Christ through his Christian baptism, or whether he is martyred and bears his witness of Christ in his death.

21 For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.  23 I am caught between the two.  I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better.
Paul considers death a "gain" because, for a Christian who dies in the grace of God, it means entering into the joy of the Resurrected Christ and seeing Him face to face in glory (1 Cor 13:12).  Paul says he longs to be united to Christ in glory "for that is far better" than living in a world full of sin and strife.

22 If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.  And I do not know which I shall choose. 
The positive side of continuing to live in the flesh (in this world) is that Paul can continue to serve the Lord, and yet the thought of going to be with Christ is very appealing to him.

24 Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.  27 Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
However, Paul writes, because he still has work to do in their community, it is better for their sakes that he remains with them.  His only request is that they show the fruits of his labors by their good Christian conduct that is in itself a witness for Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Matthew 20:1-16 ~ Instruction in Service to the Kingdom: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Jesus told his disciples this parable: 20:1 "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner [housemaster] who sent out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.  2 After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage [a denarius a day], he sent them into his vineyard.  3 Going out about nine o'clock [the third hour], he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.'  5 So they went off [And] he went out again around noon [the sixth hour], and around three o'clock [the ninth hour], and did likewise.  6 Going out about five o'clock [the eleventh hour], he found others standing around, and said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?'  7 They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.'  He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.'  8 When it was evening [opsios = end of the day] the owner [kyrois = lord] of the vineyard said to his foreman [foreman/manager], 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.'  9 When those who had started about five o'clock [the eleventh hour] came, each received the usual daily wage.  10 So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.  11 And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner [housemaster], 12 saying, 'These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat.'  13 He said to one of them in reply, 'My friend, I am not cheating you [treating you unjustly].  Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage [for a denarius]?  14 Take what is yours and go.  What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?  15 [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money ["money" not in the Greek text]?  Are you envious because I am generous [is your eye evil because I am good]?'  16 Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.  (For many are called, but few are chosen)*." [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, page 58). * = the Vulgate and other translations including many Greek codices add this line; see the same line in 22:14.

Jesus tells this parable to explain His statement in 19:30 after the conclusion of His encounter with the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-30, when He said: But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.  This passage is another of Jesus' kingdom parables.  The parable concerns a vineyard, a master of the house who is also lord of the vineyard, his foreman, and His workers/laborers.  Notice that the parable begins and ends with the same saying, but the end saying is in reverse order: But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first (19:30), and Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last (20:16). This parable is only in Matthew's Gospel.

The Greek text describes the "lord of the vineyard" (verse 8) in verse 1 by the word oikodespotes [oy-kod-es-pot'-ace], "the head of a family/master of the house."   When he hires the laborers, they all agree to receive their pay in the "evening" (verse 8).  The Greek word is opsios = "afternoon, late in the day, at the close of the day, early evening, not yet sunset."  The hours before sunset were the "end of the day" because for the Jews the next day began at sunset.  When Scripture refers to "evening" in Jewish time, it is always our afternoon.  A Roman denarius (verses 2 and 13 in the literal translation) was the average wage for a day laborer in the first century AD.  It was a silver coin that bore the image of the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar (Mt 22:19-21).  Notice that the Law is observed in the payment of the laborers.  According to the Law of Moses, a laborer had to be paid at the end of the day (Dt 24:14-15).

In the parable, each of the people, places, wages, and hours are symbolic.  In the symbolic images of the Old Testament prophets, the well-tended vineyard is the symbolic image of Israel: God's obedient people of the Old Covenant Church in covenant with Yahweh.  See the chart "Images of the Old Testament Prophets" and also see Is 5:1-7; Ez 19:10-22; and Jer 24:4-7.

However, in this case, the "vineyard" represents more than the Israelites as God's people called out of the world as the kahal of His sacred assembly who worship in His house, the Jerusalem Temple.  In verse 1, Jesus says this parable is about the coming Kingdom of Heaven that He has come to establish; therefore, this parable is about the new Israel of the New Covenant Church (CCC 877).

In the literal Greek text, two titles are given to the owner of the vineyard.  He is called the "master of the house" in verse 1 and the "lord of the vineyard" in verse 8.  The master of the house/lord of the vineyard, the laborers, and the foreman who pays the promised wage for service are all symbolic images.  The marketplace where the laborers are found and the wages and the hours are also symbolic.  There are two possible interpretations for the hours when the master calls the workers.  The key to this parable is that it is about the Kingdom that Jesus has come to proclaim.  There are seven symbolic images in the parable:

  1. vineyard = the Church, the kingdom of heaven on earth/house of God
  2. housemaster/lord of the vineyard = God
  3. laborers = those who serve the kingdom/house of God in the Old and New Covenants or who come to serve the kingdom at different ages in a lifetime.
  4. market-place = the world
  5. foreman who pays the promised wage for service = Jesus
  6. wage = salvation
  7. hours = the age of man in salvation history from Creation to the end of the age of man or the lifetime of a person from birth to the end of life

God calls laborers, men and women, to come and serve His kingdom from the "market-place" of the world.  The wage He promises to pay for service to His kingdom is eternal salvation; it is a gift to all who serve faithfully and obediently.  The "foreman" who will pay the wage of eternal salvation is Jesus Christ: There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved (Acts 4:12). 

The hours from dawn to the end of the day probably refer to the progress of salvation history.  The laborers the master called first were the Israelites of the Old Covenant Church.  Like the laborers called first in the parable, they also complained about the hardships of their length of service.  This complaint about fairness is similar to the complaint of the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) who represents the elder, "firstborn" sons of the Old Covenant faith (Ex 4:22) as opposed to his younger brother who returned.  The younger brother represents the Gentile "younger sons" who will answer the call to return to God in the New Covenant Church.  However, the hours from dawn to the end of the day can also represent a person's lifetime.  Whether a person is baptized at birth and continues to serve the Lord all his life or the person called in his youth or middle age, or even the person who answers the call to salvation at the end of his life, God gives His gift of salvation in every case.

Notice the significant times the master hires the workers.  There were twelve hours of daylight (as Jesus said in Jn 11:9).  The times in the parable from the literal Greek text are in Jewish time:

The night was divided into four night watches in the first century AD.  However, there were twelve seasonal hours in the Jewish daylight hours, counting the hours from dawn to sunset with high noon marking the middle of the daylight hours.  Therefore, noon is the sixth hour of the twelve hour day.  The times in the parable correspond to the flow of daily life for the covenant people as determined by the prayer time associated with the Temple liturgy in the twice daily sacrifice of the Tamid lamb.  The 'olat ha-Tamid (literally "burning the-standing") was the single communal sacrifice of two lambs: one in a morning liturgy and another in the afternoon.  It was the sacrifice of an unblemished male lamb as a whole burnt offering on the altar fire (given entirely to God) at the Jerusalem Temple for the atonement and sanctification of the covenant people.  See the e-book "Jesus and the Mystery of the Tamid Sacrifice."

The mandatory communal sacrifice of the Tamid was first offered in the desert Sanctuary and later in the Jerusalem Temple.  The Jewish Talmud in the section Mishnah:Tamid records the order of the worship service, and Josephus' history of the Jews (Antiquities of the Jews) mentions the time of the afternoon liturgy.  The first lamb was brought to the altar at dawn and was sacrificed at about 9 AM, the third hour Jewish time.  The second lamb was brought to the altar at noon, the sixth hour Jewish time, and was sacrificed at about 3 PM, the ninth hour Jewish time.  The Temple sacrifices had to end by the eleventh hour (about 5 PM), so the priests could cleanse the Temple before sundown.  The Tamid was a "perpetual" communal sacrifice for the atonement and sanctification of the covenant people that had its origins in God's command to Moses when he ascended the holy mountain at Sinai.  The instructions for the sacrifice are in Exodus 29:38-42 and in Numbers 28:3-8.  The word "tamid" means "standing" as in perpetual or continual, but our English translations usually referred to it as the "daily sacrifice."  It was the most important sacrifice of the Old Covenant, and no other sacrifice, not even the Passover sacrifice of thousands of lambs and goat kids or the sacrifice of atonement on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), was to have precedence over the Tamid.  This command is given 15 times in Numbers 28-29 (28:10, 15, 23, 24, 31; 29:6, 11, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28, 31, 34, and 38).

Notice in the parable that more and more workers are hired and brought into the vineyard by the master/lord of the vineyard.  The season of the year is the "harvest" when there is a need for many workers.  In Jesus' parable, the "harvest" is symbolic for the harvest of believers into the Church in the Messianic Age. 

In other teachings, Jesus used "laborers" or servants of the householder (Mt 13:27) who work in the "field" of the world (Mt 13:38).  The "harvest" is a metaphor for the gathering of souls into heaven and the Last Judgment at the end of the age of man.  An example is the parable of the weeds and the wheat (Mt 13:24-30, 39-43): ... The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels (13:39b).  Jesus uses the same imagery in this parable, but this "harvest" cannot be at the end of the Age of Man since the laborers are human beings and not angels.  The laborers in this parable are the servants of the Master who plant the "good seed," those who are the children of God (13:38), and harvest is the gathering of the souls of believers into the House-Master's/God's earthly store-house that is the Church.  The image for laborers in this parable is the same as in Mt 9:37 where Jesus tells His disciples: "The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; as ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest," referring not to the final harvest of the angels at the Second Coming but the ongoing harvest of souls until that time.

Matthew 20:13-14 ~ He said to one of them in reply, "My friend, I am not cheating you [treating you unjustly].  Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage [for a denarius]?  14 Take what is yours and go.  What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?" 
The first workers are angry; they resent that the workers hired later are receiving the same wage.  The Master is not unjust.  He is just because it was the agreed upon "wage" when He "hired" each group of laborers.  It is for the Housemaster/Lord of the vineyard that is the Kingdom (God) to decide to whom He is generous/extends the gift of salvation.

 Matthew 20:15 ~ The Master continues: "[Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?  Are you envious because I am generous [is your eye evil because I am good]?" 
The word "money" is not in the Greek text of verse 15; the verse reads "Am I not free to do as I wish with my own."  The "evil eye" is the same expression used in Mt 6:23 and may refer to Deuteronomy 15:9.  In both passages, the expression refers to envy and a lack of generosity. 

We should ask what is the reason for the envy of the "first hired" laborers?  Envy/jealousy was the reason for the first murder when Cain killed his brother Abel (Gen 4:3-8), and it is the same reason the chief priests and Pharisees wanted to condemn Jesus to death (see Mt 27:18).  It was the same sin that prevented many Old Covenant Jews from welcoming the Gentiles into the New Covenant (see Acts 15:1; 21:18-22).  The first laborers in the parable are envious because they begrudge the generosity of the "lord of the vineyard"/Lord of the Kingdom of Heaven in offering the same "wage," the gift of salvation, to those who came to serve after them.  The first laborers represent the Jews who were envious of God extending His mercy and generosity to the Gentiles who had not previously known Him in a covenant relationship.  they wanted their relationship with Yahweh to remain exclusive instead of inclusive.

Matthew 20:16 ~   Jesus concludes the parable, saying, "Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.  (For many are called, but few are chosen)." 
The first part of this saying opens and closes (in reverse order) the parable and provides the reason the last workers are paid first.  The last part of the statement, For many are called, but few are chosen, links the parable to the encounter with the rich young man who was called to a more intimate relationship with Christ as a laborer in the harvest of souls in the episode previous to this parable (see Mt 19:16-30).  But it was a service that required sacrifice, a calling the rich young man was not then prepared to accept. 

The "first" called to be "laborers" for the harvest of souls into the Church of the New Covenant were the Jews.  But like the rich young man, they declined the "call" to the mission that was their destiny from the time God made them His people in the Exodus liberation and covenant formation at Sinai (Ex 19:5-6).  The "last" to be called are the faithful remnant of Israel (Jesus' Apostles and disciples) and the Gentiles who will respond to the call of the Messiah and His Church in spreading the Gospel of salvation across the face of the earth.  They will be the "first" into the Kingdom of Heaven whose gates were opened at Jesus' Baptism (Mt 3:16; Lk 3:21). 

This great harvest of souls in Jesus' parable is the Messianic Age of the Church, welcoming all who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior into the His Kingdom.  This mission will continue until Christ returns.  We are living in the Age of the Great Harvest in Salvation History.  You and I are laborers in God's vineyard.  We are among those called to share the Gospel message of salvation and to bear the fruits of righteousness that will be a sign to others to come to faith and belief in our generous and merciful God.  The "hour" we come to serve the Master doesn't matter.  Some of us will come to believe in Christ from childhood, some as young adults, and some in old age.  There will even be those who will not come until the "eleventh hour," just before the sunset of life; and even to these our generous and merciful God will grant His gift of salvation and accept them into His Kingdom.

Catechism References:
Psalm 145:9 (CCC 295, 342)
Philippians 1:21 (CCC 1010, 1698); 1:23 (CCC 1005, 1011, 1021, 1025); 1:27 (CCC 1692)
Matthew 20:1-16 (CCC 776, 780, 816)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017