One thing we must first remind ourselves of today is that the gospel has nothing to do with our concept or idea of separation of church and state. The question involved was a question of authority and God as the ultimate power. The first reading is interesting because Cyrus was not a Jew but the Persian Ruler. Isaiah refers to him as “God’s anointed,” the same title given to Jewish Kings. In this case, Cyrus unknowingly to himself, was doing the work of God by letting the Israelites return home and even reconstruct their temple. So the ruler who is doing God’s will has legitimate authority, but God is the source. In the gospel, the Pharisees and Herodians were actually setting a trap in their friendly approach and seemingly simple question. It required either a yes or no with either answer having dire consequences of turning believers against Him or committing treason against the empire. But Jesus doesn’t answer the question really as it was put to Him. In fact he left two unanswered questions, that then and through the centuries remain for each generation to answer. What belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar(or the state, the good of humanity). It has led to a whole history of rich versus poor, of demands for human rights, of demands for the end of slavery and all other movements even to our present time. Humanity’s fallen nature has not always made us a people with our best foot forward, but hopefully we are trying and learning what it means to be a Christian and a lover of God and all that it asks us to do. It is an ongoing task, learning and developing as a people, as a world responsible to our creator. We are all called to be open and discerning of the Holy Spirit who leads the way for all. Truly we will be complete only when we are one with God, in this life, and in the next.
Well it seems we are back into vineyards and the business of grapes for another week. Of course Israel was an agricultural nation and grapes were important if they were to have wine for their tables. Remember too Jesus said I am the Vine you are the Branches and my Father is the vine dresser. So these parables have a sense of importance, but we have to be careful to realize they have at times been heavily allegorized and possibly stretched beyond their original intent. Keep in mind that Jesus or the early church never accused or blamed the Jewish people for Christ’s death.
A farmer in Israel as elsewhere lived off the land. They would trade and barter for the necessities they needed for farming, livestock, food and taxes and tithes and other necessities of life. In essence, a landowning farmer would be left with about 20% of his crop to look out for his family. A tenant farmer as we see in the gospel, could really not expect much more, but was obligated to pay the landowner. Now, typically, the tenants were the leaders of the people. Their lifestyle, accountability, leadership all become questionable and a need for change is seen and brought about. It these writings it would mean at the time that the leadership was passed on from the chief priests, etc to the new Judaeo-Christian Church.
To move forward through the centuries, we see the message of Jesus has been constant, and his church remains. It has looked to be different in one time or another, but like old testament times, repentance, change and renewal was always something the Holy Spirit has maintained and has kept Christ alive to the world. Our message today, is that good leadership must listen and work together with the people of God. History has proven that in all areas of spirituality the Spirit breathes where he wills. It is for the rest of us to discern the Spirit and not disparage the messenger.
In the intellectual sphere, the remarkable achievements of learning and science has advanced the world and also challenged us to clean up the mistakes we have made. If God our ultimate landowner asked for an accounting today, What would we say?
As the son of a union business agent, I kind of view the parable of today’s gospel with a prejudiced eye. Having grown up with the concept of a fair and living wage, and a just hour by hour accounting of a laborer or a truck driver, the story of the parable seems to violate concepts of justice and rights of the working person. These hard-fought rights brought forth labor unions and economic growth in the last century. But, and it is a big but, the parable was spoken centuries ago, in the Judaic countryside in a culture and time far removed from us. It was not meant to be an economic lesson, but a description of what the Kingdom of God was like and perhaps how he acted. In that time, an employer invited workers to work and terms were negotiated as to what would be paid.
In this story, the householder chooses to pay all the workers the same, whether they worked all day or just one hour. Red flags, sirens, etc. all arise as we listen. It is not fair, the men should be paid by the hour and not all the same. Yet, we forget they agreed to what was fair. What call does anyone have to ask or demand more than what was fair. The translation we have says the householder was “generous,” but a careful look at the original say more like the householder paid out of his “goodness.” And there we find the whole point of what the kingdom of heaven is. It is there out of God’s goodness and He treats all the same. The kingdom is not a reward or something earned but where God has invited us to be. We are all equal and God doesn’t play favorites of one over another.
We are all called to his kingdom, some with years and years of faith and love, others answering for lesser time. Yet, from the infant who died in childbirth to the martyrs of the many centuries to the exalted saints we honor in the church, God welcomes and treats each as his own and each with all his love. Yes, we need to labor as we are called to the vineyard.