Standing around doing nothing

Published on 18 Sep 2020

Why have you been standing here idle all day?[1]

We are most of us slow to learn to love God.  Examining our life, we realise that we have focused on many other things before trying to give the central place to God.   Late have I loved thee [2] prayed Augustine, expressing a regret about this tardiness.   The landowner’s phrase, standing here idle all day, could seem less apt.  We have been busy with other things, some of them important.  Yes, we have come late to work wholeheartedly in the Lord’s the vineyard. Earlier, however, we were not so much idling as distracted from the essential.

At about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round [3].  It is the eleventh hour for our spiritual progress.  There is no more time to lose.  Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, call to him while he is still near [4].  The landowner’s brusque allusion to idleness might ruffle feathers. However there is clearly a great deal to be done.  Energy which has until now been put into other tasks, of varying merit, must now be focused more intently on one where we must succeed.  We ask God that we may come to possess his redemption both in mystery and in manner of life [5].  The hard labour of the final available hour is to allow progress to be made sacramentally and morally, in closeness to the Lord in our prayer and in our love of neighbour.

The late starters in the parable explained their absence from the vineyard thus: because no one… hired us [6].   We are sent into the vineyard.  It is true that those who follow Christ are called to do so.  Our free choice is to answer a summons.  We do not wander into the kingdom on a whim.  We are completely dependent on grace.  If the Lord does not call us, and enable us to respond, we are lost.  It is his already his gift to us that we have a sense of the lateness of the hour and of the urgency of our next step towards him.  It is already a divine gift that we are standing around in the right place. Nevertheless the interest, which the Holy Spirit provokes in us, is genuinely ours. If we are enabled by God to seek his light, we are nevertheless truly seekers. Our search is our own responsibility. The Lord is close to all who call him, who call on him from their hearts [7].  We pray sincerely to grow closer to the One who has made us and who directs our efforts.  Our participation in the sacraments, for all our unworthiness, brings us into a true relationship with Jesus Christ.  At a minimum, we now avoid anything in our everyday lives that would be unworthy of the Gospel [8].

The landowner grumbles about idleness because he himself has been so busy.  Not only was he recruiting and directing towards the vineyard all those earlier workers, but he also had the latecomers in mind.  Have I no right to do what I like with my own? [9]  God has called us from all eternity.  Our journey towards him, however zigzag, has always been under his providential care.  Thus will the last be first, and the first last [10].  Painful to us, at least now, is the protracted mismatch between the divine thoughts and our thinking and planning. My ways are above your ways, my thoughts are above your thoughts [11].  The eleventh hour summons to work provokes gratitude as well as regret.  The earlier invitations are now audible also and we marvel at our own obtuseness.  However, a good purpose has been served by all those things which God willed and which were, at the time, too mysterious for us to understand or too difficult for us to act upon.  He says: my word that goes out from mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it [12].   The Lord knew what he was doing. Now, at last, we are listening to him more attentively.  We hear his call and are seeking, under his further inspiration, to respond fully and generously.

What of our old preoccupations?  They held me far from you, those things which would not exist, were they not in you [13].   We were concentrating on creation and not paying enough attention to the creator.  Having begun to give thanks for his providence, we naturally try to remember what he was saying to us earlier.  Why did he give us so much?  What do our set-backs mean?   Although my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways [14], we try to see the finger of God writing in our life.  Giving thanks for help received and for hope rekindled, we try not to be greedy: when the first came they expected to get more [15].  Urgently wanting to be closer to a Lord whom we have sometimes neglected we can seek, even now, however,  to impose our own timetable.  We are repentant for our sins but are also quick to congratulate ourselves: we have done a heavy day’s work in the heat [16].   The good humour of the landowner in the parable does not conceal the seriousness of our situation.

The Lord is saying to us: my friend, I am not being unjust to you [17].  For a long time he has been inviting us to walk more purposefully on his path.  Freely, we took our own road. Then, equally freely, we listened to his call and caught his note of loving urgency. ‘There is much to do’, he says,   ‘Allow me to help you’. Encouraging our trust, Jesus reminds us I am generous?[18]   His generosity is in all the good things we have ever enjoyed and in his continuing care of us.  Humbly, we accept his timetable and programme.  The Lord builds a more perfect cooperation between us and him on the foundations of the old imperfect relationship. We go on giving thanks for the good gifts even though they were not always well used.  If we pray, late have we loved you, we are aware that our saviour has been teaching us to love him and his brothers and sisters for much longer than we have been listening to him with much care.  Now we are beginning again.  Once more the Lord is helping us. 

Homily by Fr Peter Gallagher SJ 

[1]              Matthew 20.6

[2]              Augustine Confessions 10.27   sero te amavi

[3]              Matthew 20.6

[4]              Isaiah 55.6

[5]              Roman Missal, Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Prayer after Communion

[6]              Matthew 20.7

[7]              Psalm (145) 144.18

[8]              Philippians 1.27

[9]              Matthew 20.15

[10]            Matthew 20.19

[11]            Isaiah 55.9

[12]            Isaiah 55.10-11

[13]            Augustine, Confessions 10. 27  ea me tenebant longe a te, quae si in te non essent, non essent

[14]            Isaiah 55.8

[15]            Matthew 20.10

[16]            Matthew 20.12

[17]            Matthew 20.13

[18]            Matthew 20.15