What a friend we have in Jesus!
In the northern part of London, England, where I had my first parish experience, there was a strong Irish population. In one of the towns there, it was customary for these Irish men to turn up in the main square early in the morning, waiting to be offered jobs by the construction companies that drove by, looking for labourers. The scene was not unlike that described in our gospel parable today.Since the work was hard and often required a great deal of strength and agility, digging, climbing up scaffolding whilst holding on to your tools and other equipment, obviously the people most often chosen from the line up were those who fit the bill. The weaker, less agile, and older men were usually turned away.
Without a doubt, if those men chosen first, who had worked hard all day, discovered as they turned up at the end of the day to get their wages, that other men had also been employed for fewer hours and less onerous duties and been given the same wages as they, there would have been severe ructions and the construction company would have found fewer men willing to be employed by them the next day. In these days of unions, shop stewards and workers’ right , that company would have gone out of business very quickly.
But in Jesus’ day, there was no such thing as unions and bargaining rights. Nor was there any welfare, so if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat, nor did your family. Which meant the landowner called the shots. He could lay down whatever terms of employment he wanted. If you didn’t like it, there was no union nor court you could take the matter to. It was either work, whatever the conditions, or starve, and see your family starve. Like it or lump it, as we would say in England. Clearly, Jesus well knew the conditions facing his fellow Jews at the hands of the rich and powerful members of society, and of the Roman occupying power. He moved among them in his itinerant ministry, his father had been a carpenter, which was a catch-all term for many construction skills, and Jesus himself, of course, had worked as a carpenter alongside his father, until he was 30. Many of his disciples were laborers, rather than management or owners, they were at the bottom of the ladder, not at the top. The situation Jesus described was one with which many of his followers could identify.
Jesus, in his parable of the workers in the vineyard, is not endorsing the unjust situation faced by the workers in the vineyard, not at all. He is focusing on just one aspect of the situation that he wanted his disciples to concentrate on and imitate. He states it quite clearly at the end of the parable: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Jesus actually quotes that statement earlier in the gospel (19:30) when he describes who will be counted worthy to become his disciple. The first will be last, and the last will be first . But now the parable describes what life will be like in the kingdom of heaven. Who will be the first to be welcomed into heaven? Not the strong, nor the rich, nor the people of influence . . . this would be astounding to many of Jesus’ hearers. They had been brought up to believe that it was precisely those classes of people who were blessed by God, so obviously they would have the front places in heaven. Why did they believe this? Because the rich and the powerful, and the men of influence of their day, which included their spiritual leaders and betters, such as the scribes and Pharisees, told them so. They also believed that the weak, the poor, the disadvantaged, the disabled, the defective in any way, including the tax collectors and the prostitutes, would be lucky to scrape into heaven at the judgement on the last day. As for the pagans, the Gentiles, forget it. God had no time or interest in what happened to them.
So when Jesus says that, in the kingdom of heaven, the people considered the least, the pathetic, the marginalized, would in fact have a better chance of getting in than the obvious candidates, the rich and powerful elites, including the scribes and Pharisees, he would have caused a sensation among his listeners. They would not have believed their ears, and that would have included the scribes and Pharisees among the crowds listening to Jesus’ words. They would have been scandalized. No wonder they wanted to kill him, or have him killed. He was fomenting revolution! He was turning their world upside down! Whereas the disciples of Jesus, which included the poorest, the weakest, the ordinary working class, would have been astonished but also delighted. Having been told by their religious leaders, over and over again, that they didn’t really count in God’s eyes as worthy of a place in his kingdom, here was Jesus, a man respected and admired by all kinds of people, and clearly one who knew God very well, telling them that what their religious leaders had been saying to them was all baloney, nonsense, not the way that life in heaven was at all. Not only that, but even the pagans, even the Romans, would be coming into the kingdom of heaven as well as they. And since most of us, before we became Christian, were pagan, i.e not Jewish, that is good news for us . What a friend we have in Jesus.
We are Church, brothers and sisters. Church is not the building, it is the community, you and I. The Church is, or should be, the best example of what life in the kingdom of heaven is all about. Those looking in on us from outside, should be able to see from the way we treat outsiders, the weak, the poor, those who do not fit in anywhere else , the marginalized, disabled, and so on, that there is a home and a welcome for everyone, no matter their race, their colour, their social and economic background, their weaknesses. That will encourage them to feel that there could also be a place for themselves as well. That is the best and most effective way to evangelize, by the way we live with others, including the misfits, how we behave towards one another, including the ones who irritate us the most. “See how those Christians love one another and also love others, who are not Christian” should be what they say about us. And if Jesus is the reason why we behave in such a loving way, won’t those looking in also be able to say: “What a friend we have in Jesus?” Can we say that this is true about our parish community , brothers and sisters? If not, why not?