Philippians 1:20C-24, 27A
Many of our separated brothers and sisters will repeat the falsehood that the Church teaches that we are “saved by works,” while some people (including not a few poorly catechized Catholics that I’ve encountered over the years) seem to believe that our works do not matter at all. We are reminded in this Sunday’s readings that both of these ideas, which have been in common circulation for centuries, are patently false.
Holy Mother Church teaches us that there are four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. And while the Church clearly tells us that many of those who die will undergo a “final purification” or Purgatory, Purgatory is not a “second chance.” If we get to Purgatory, the final purification, that means that we are assured of Heaven at that point, so Heaven is one of the Four Last Things. Jesus’ parable reminds us that while Divine Justice plays its critical part in God’s judgement, that God is merciful and generous. The only thing that is required for anyone to make it to Heaven in the end is for that person to die in a state of grace. If you don’t die in a state of grace, you can’t make it to Heaven. That’s why you often hear me discuss the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or you’ll hear Father talk about it as well. None of us ever know when we will be called to meet God, so it is best to be ready for it.
The thing that most stands out about the parable in the Gospel today is the reality that the householder, or the owner of the vineyard, gave the same wage to those who came to work for him late in the day as he did to those who worked for the entire day. Those who worked the whole day complained that those people who had only worked an hour or two were paid the same amount of money and they got to labor in the cool of the evening! This should firstly remind us that God can save anyone, and he can do it very late in life. He can even save someone who sincerely accepts the Gospel and receives the Sacraments on his or her deathbed. If that person dies in a state of grace, that means that they can ultimately enter the joy of Heaven (CCC 1030-1032). The other important thing that stands out about this parable is the reality that there were people hired at the beginning of the day and these people were called upon to labor in the vineyard all day long. Yes, God can give us the grace necessary to receive Him at the evening of our lives, and we will be rewarded if we sincerely do so. But He prefers it if we are willing to take the Lord’s good wage and work in the vineyard all day long-throughout the long day of our lives on this earth.
The Lord Jesus also understands the secret disposition of our hearts in a way that only He can. Because of this, it doesn’t do anyone any good to say in their heart that they will live as they please now and then accept the Lord and His Church late in their life. “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” (cf. Gal. 6:7) We can rest assured that Our Lord understands the difference between a sincere conversion of heart in the evening of our lives (as often does happen with many souls), and an attempt to grab on to the Cross because we know that in our hearts we have rejected Him. God knows very well when we are trying to play games with His mercy, so it is best to avoid doing so.
We should never underestimate the mercy of God, nor should we despair of His mercy. No one should ever presume that what they have done is so heinous that our Lord would not have mercy upon them. Perhaps more than anything else, after all, this was really the great sin of Judas Iscariot. The problem with Judas was not that he was not sorry for his sin, because his actions clearly indicated remorse. The real problem with Judas is that he didn’t believe that he was worthy of Jesus’ forgiveness. In the end he despaired of that forgiveness and took his own life. (cf. Matthew 27:3-10) Judas’ example is a very extreme one, but it exists in scripture to illustrate a larger point. That point is actually the same point that Jesus is making in the parable in today’s Gospel. God is merciful even unto those who come to him late in the day. It is not God’s will “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (cf. 2 Peter 3:9) Perhaps someone here today has been away from the things of God and away from the Church for a very long time. You might even think that you’ve been away for so long, that you can’t possibly fit in anymore. Jesus illustrates in the Gospel today that it is never too late so long as the light of the Gospel is still with us. The householder of the vineyard even went to the marketplace late in the day looking for laborers out of mercy and kindness, rather than out of need, some of the great Catholic biblical commentators have told us. Our Lord is like that vineyard master, he will search for people to join him in the vineyard out of mercy, rather than out of need.
As the Prophet Isaiah reminds us in the first reading, God’s ways are so far above our ways as the heavens are above the earth. (cf. Isaiah 55:9) Just as we can never fully understand His ways or despair of His mercy, it is equally offensive to God for us to presume his mercy and assume that because he desires that we should not perish that justice would not be required of us for our sins. We do have free will and we have the freedom to accept or reject God, and the way that we accept Him is to accept His Church and to accept her teachings. We accept Him by serving others in His name. We accept him by receiving the sacraments with a lively faith and a humble heart. We accept Him by accepting His Holy Mother, and by saying yes just as she did, to His will and plan for our lives. We accept Him by faithfully laboring in the vineyard of the Lord, and doing so without envy toward the other laborers and their reward.
St. Paul tells us in the second reading to conduct ourselves in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Part of doing that means not only accepting our labors in the Kingdom, but living our lives daily so that people in the world who do not know our Catholic faith look at us and wonder what it is that we have that they do not have that gives us such peace. In a portion of that verse which is not included in the reading today, Paul asks the Philippians to conduct themselves in such a way that he might come to know that they will stand firm in one spirit, “with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel.” (cf. Phil. 1:27) We all must ask ourselves if we are living in the way that Paul asked the Philippians to live. Are we living the Christian life in such a way that it attracts people into the vineyard, even people who come late in the day? And if we have been fortunate to come early in the day, early in the season of our lives, are we willing to work for the sake of the Kingdom? We must do the work of him who sent us while it is day, because in the words of Jesus, “night comes when no man can work.” (cf. John 9:4)