|Wine Grower by Aelbert Cuyp, 1628|
Today’s Gospel (Sunday – September 21) is a story of liberation and includes what is called a “great reversal” – where the Gospel writer inserts the phrase - the last will be first and the first will be last.
Allow me to insert a few examples of “great reversals” from my hearing and reading experiences as I reflected on this Gospel. . .
• My first story is that of a friend of mine, who with his seminarian companions, needed to get specific classes at the beginning of their college semester. So the plan was to rise very early the next morning, set out across campus to the building for registration, and be the first in line so as to sign up for their classes which were limited in the amount of students who would be able to attend.
So the following morning, the band of eager seminarians headed off to their building for registration with forms and personal data in hand. After standing at the door of the registration building for a couple of misty morning hours, the door finally opened. The seminarians inquired as to the room for registration of their classes, only to be told that they were to register in the next building. They were at the wrong building. They found that they had to turn around, go down the steps, and follow the students who were originally standing behind them – who were to be the last ones to register. Now the last students would be the first ones to register at the next building and these eager seminarians would be last. Truly a great reversal!
• My second story of a “great reversal” reminds me of St. Rose of Lima. She dedicated her life helping her family, the homeless, the poor, and the sick. She was a beautiful woman, and she did all that she could to make herself “less than” or “last” in the eyes of humanity and God! She lived as a recluse, and practiced austere penances and excessive mortifications. For example, she cut off her beautiful hair, wore coarse clothing, also wore a chain around her waist, and also had a metal spike crown covered with flowers upon her head. She fasted daily and slept on a bed of broken glass, thorns, and stones. She was known to have visions of Jesus and prayed for hours in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. She did all of this to become less – to become small – to become last in the eyes of the world.
However, after her death, there were many miracles attributed to her, and upon her canonization she became the First American Saint and Patroness of South and Central America, and the Philippines. Truly a great reversal in which her efforts to be last turned upside down and around and she became first and sainted in the eyes of the Church.
Today’s Gospel is also a parable – and Jesus was a master storyteller and used this literary form artfully. A Parable is a short story that uses images to illustrate a truth or a lesson. Parables used familiar symbols so that the listener could relate, and if need be, be shocked. Whatever the outcome in the hearer, the parables required a response. Either the hearer was to change behaviors, or a thought, or a belief, but change was the reason for the parables.
Jesus’ parables always spoke of the Kingdom of God – or the Reign of God - and always had a little twist hidden within the story. Our Gospel is a story of the Kingdom; a Kingdom where one does not have to earn the love of God – it is a Kingdom where one learns to receive the love of God. All are equal in the eyes of God – all are invited to the Kingdom.
This parable is not about earning, or about being paid with an amount proportionate to the time you worked in the hot sun. The Gospel illustrates an alternate economy – the economy of the Reign of God – an economy of GIFT! An economy of GIFT regards all that we have received from God, - that is, nature, family, community, all our relationships, and talents, all of life, - we receive freely from God’s generosity – all is GIFT!
The vineyard owner, clearly a God-figure, claims to be operating according to a different economic system. No one earned anything – all is GIFT. Divine generosity, not personal effort, is the source of what each received.
So as we reflect this week – we can ask -
Where or when have we been shocked by God’s divine generosity?
What have we heard in our hearts this week that requires of us to consider new behaviors, new attitudes, or new thoughts about life, God, others, ourselves?
Is God teaching us the “economy of Gift” and that God desires us to simply be open to the generous out-pouring of God’s love and mercy for us?
Finally, are we aware that God’s love for us never changes, never ends, is never earned and never lost?
Then let us ask Rose of Lima to intercede for us today, and gather the graces for us that we need to grow in courage, authenticity, and wisdom so as to better manage the ambiguities and paradoxes of our lives, especially when we are challenged to understand great reversals – such as when the last are first and the first are last.