Of Early Birds and
Sleepyheads by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just. So they went off. He went out again around noon, and around three o'clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o'clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' They answered, 'Because no one has hired us. He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.'
When it was evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.' When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, 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. He said to one of them in reply, 'My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?' Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."
We have all heard the phrase, “timing is everything.” This holds true perhaps for a comedy routine or the West Coast Offensive football line. Then we might hear, “better late than never.” And that might hold true in other situations.
But how do these nuggets of human wisdom measure up in matters of faith? In the Christian life, does being an early bird or a sleepyhead make any difference?
On one hand, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard would seem to indicate that timing is not everything. In fact, it seems that it counts for nothing. The landowner in the parable hires laborers for his vineyard at different hours – at dawn, mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon and evening. At the end of the day, however, he pays each of them the same: one denarius.
Now if we think that this payment is just, then we miss the point of the parable completely. In an earthly reckoning of wages, it is a travesty. Our Lord deliberately gives a shocking end to the parable to teach that we cannot measure God’s mercy by human, worldly standards. In worldly terms, one denarius for each laborer is unjust because some had worked longer than others. But in divine terms, the denarius – that is, salvation - is extended to all, however early or late they may arrive. Because in God’s mercy, both the early birds and sleepyheads can receive salvation.
In this regard, timing is not everything and late is better than never. This brings great consolation and hope. It means that even those who turn to the Lord at the last possible moment can be saved. It affords hope for the atheist at the point of death or the fallen away Catholic facing terminal illness. Our Lord teaches this also by example, when from the cross He promises to the Good Thief: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43) With this in mind, we dare not stop our prayers for those who have strayed from the Faith or not yet answered the Lord’s call. If they turn to Him late, even at their last breath, they too can receive that denarius, eternal life.
At the same time, the landowner in the parable clearly would have preferred a timlier arrival of laborers. His second, third and fourth trips to the marketplace found men “standing idle” is not an indifferent description. It indicates that they failed or neglected to do something that they should have done. There was work for them to do, work that needed doing – yet they remained idle.
Clearly, Our Lord does not want us to be idle – to delay or procrastinate – about answering His call and entering into His service. In this regard, timing is everything and delay could mean that death catches us unaware. This Scripture contains many exhortations to conversion and holiness because “the time is short.” (1 Cor 7:29; cf. Lk21:34-36)
As regards our prompt response, two details of the parable merit mention. First, the landowner finds the laborers in the marketplace – i.e. in the midst of the world. And that is where the Lord seeks us as well, nudging us to serve Him where we are, to attend to the duty of the moment, to offer the task before us for His glory.
Second, the hours of the landowner’s visits correspond to the traditional times of prayer in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours. So in the landowner’s recruitment visits we can see an image of God inviting us to pray at certain times throughout the day.
Thus, according to God’s mercy, it is “better late than never.” But we should not use Our Lord’s mercy toward latecomers as an excuse for delay or procrastination. After all, we never know whether we will arrive late – or not at all. So in another way, “timing is everything” because it displays a heart attentive and responsive to the Lord’s coming.
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