September 19, 1999 25th Sunday "A"
By any standard accepted nowadays in labor relations, the employer of today's Gospel acts according to rather strange and even unacceptable principles. It does not fit our idea of justice and his attitude is somewhat disturbing. Equally disturbing are the concluding words of the parable: "The last will be first, and the first last." The early Christians seem to have been disturbed by this saying of Jesus, each one of the Evangelists placing it in a different context, and Matthew even reporting it twice.
Saint Paul, in any case, is a good example of the last being the first. The last of the Apostles, very soon he became the most active and the most efficient of all of them in spreading the Good News to all the Nations.
Paul also actualized the teaching of this saying of Jesus in another way, that is, by preaching to the Pagans. In fact this seems to be the real meaning of our Gospel passage, which is not, of course, about the salary to be paid to hired workers, but about Pagans receiving the Good News and entering first into the Kingdom while the Jews were, for the most part, refusing the Good News.
Our second reading of this morning is from the letter of Paul to the Philippians, a letter that has something very beautiful and fresh about it. Philippi was the first city of Europe to receive the Christian message, during Paul's third missionary trip. It was a very small Christian community with which Paul kept some very special relationship, like Jesus' relationship with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. In his letter Paul speaks in a personal, intimate tone. Although he is a prisoner he is a very happy man. His joy transpires through his letter, which has rightly been called "the letter of joy". .
The letter was written from jail. Paul had already appeared before the tribunal and had not yet received his sentence. The sentence could be freedom as well as it could be death. It is generally admitted that this was a captivity of Paul at Ephesus, and not his last captivity in Rome. Paul, therefore, was not an old man. He was a man in his late forties or early fifties -- younger than most of us here. A man who trough years of suffering and struggle had acquired a good deal of self-knowledge, and was able to recognize all the various, somewhat contradictory desires that were present in his heart.
At that time he was overjoyed by the knowledge of the love of Christ for him. And, therefore, he would love to die and be with Christ forever. But he knew that Christ was his life even here on earth. And he sincerely desired to continue to preach Him, and to be with his friends, especially the Philippians. He did not know whether he should prefer to die in order to be with Christ, or to be alive in order to announce Him. He knew that in one way or the other Christ would be exalted by him.
Paul is a man of joy, because he is free. Free from fear, from personal ambitions, from anything that is not Christ. And just by that he is teaching us how we can let Christ's joy fill our own lives and the life of our communities.
Several years ago, in Ghana, I was celebrating the Eucharist with a group of young men who where members of the Young Christian Students movement. During that mass, we read this epistle of Paul. And, as second reading, we read the letter of one of their friends, another member of the movement, who was in jail in the neighboring country and had been condemned to death. He had appealed to the president of the country, and was waiting for the president's answer who could either pardon him or send him to the firing squad. What struck us all was the great similarity between the two letters: same tranquil, peaceful and forceful joy of men knowing that they had nothing to lose and everything to win, whatever happened. I understood for the first time what it meant for the Philippians, the Corinthians, the Ephesians to receive such personal letters from Paul. And perhaps today we should read at Mass similar letters received from our Sisters and Brothers in Angola and Congo or China, or from Christians of East Timor.
In any case, may we too, after their example and Paul's example, live with the joy that can be the lot only of those who have nothing to prove, nothing to preserve, nothing to win and nothing to lose. The joy of those who are free, because they know that whatever happens to them and to their communities, they belong to Christ.