Within today’s readings there are a couple familiar phrases. The first, found in Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord,” and the second, from the Gospel of Matthew “The last will be first and the first will be last” have, to some degree, become platitudes, or clichés in today’s Christian culture. These phrases, and those like them, are statements found in or extrapolated from the word of God and are often used in the wrong context and no longer accurately represent the truths which they contain. Phrases such as these are often a conversation ender, a vocalized exclamation point, signaling that it is time to talk about something else.
In case you need a bit more context, here are a few more examples of these Christian clichés or platitudes.
“When God closes a door, he opens a window.” A statement often used to explain away the frustration and disappointment when something does not go our way.
Or “Let go and let God.” Again, a statement intended to encourage one not to be anxious.
“Be not afraid!” A phrase popularized by St. John Paul II, that is now used so often it has become a meme on social media.
Please understand, I am in no way diminishing the truths contained in each of these statements. Nor am I attempting to lessen the importance of their meaning. I am simply pointing out that as followers of Christ we have a habit of misusing statement about the nature and promises of God that their significance and meaning are lost and inconsequential. We have turned them into ornaments, as if they are the finishing touches on a Christmas tree, instead of profound and meaningful insights into the nature of God.
Today’s Gospel could be easily categorized as a cliché or platitude. We could… just categorize today’s Gospel as a simple reminder that salvation is intended for all. Or… as a lesson that late comers to the faith are as welcome as those who have been baptized while yet in the cradle. Though these truths of God are evident, clear, and relevant there are additional, even dare I say, grander truths of God and his nature that are presented to us in today’s Gospel reading.
We are told, “a landowner… went out to hire laborers for his vineyard.” What is notable here is that the task of hiring laborers was typically reserved for a foreman or steward, individuals who were trusted to oversee the work and the laborers. Yet, in this parable Jesus emphasizes that the landowner himself went out, multiple times in the day, to the public spaces seeking laborers.
The landowner, as an image of God, is constantly and consistently seeking and calling all of humanity to himself. He is not satisfied with just a few, rather, he seeks to fulfill his desire for the salvation of all humankind. God is so in love with all of humanity, that he came to earth, revealed himself, manifesting his desire for the salvation of all. As the landowner who spends his day going to the marketplaces, so too God is actively seeking each and every one of us.
Another truth about God revealed to us in this Gospel is revealed as the landowner assures those whom he has called that he is just.
God is not a cheater. He does not deal with humankind unfairly. He keeps his promises, he honors his word, he shows no preference, and holds none in greater esteem. Our choice in responding to his call for salvation is not weighed, measured, or balanced on scales. Instead, our response to God‘s call is rewarded in full as we are granted full membership into the family of God with all privileges and honors due as his chosen people.
Finally, we are presented with another truth of God as portrayed through the landowner, and that is God’s justice is manifested in his mercy. As those who answered God’s call in the eleventh hour of the day so too were those who responded earlier in the day all beneficiaries of the mercy of God. God as the creator and sustainer of all things is free to administer his generosity as he determines, and as we have already established, he is a just God, his generosity, and therefore his mercy, is also his justice.
So often we separate these to truths of God. We separate his justice from his mercy and deem them to be in opposition, when in fact they are the same. Both working in concert to bring all of humanity to salvation.
We must ask ourselves; do we view the promotions at work, the negative medical tests, the removal of obstacles, or the miraculous healings as evidence of God’s mercy? Do we interpret rejections, failures, difficulties, and illness as evidence of God’s judgement?
Or, rather, should we consider all that this life offers; reward, consequence, obstacle, or tragedy as evidence of the landowner, our just and merciful God, calling us to deeper love with both him and our neighbor?
Our challenge this day is to move our faith beyond platitudes and clichés. To grow deeper in our understanding of God and the truths he has revealed to us. We must refuse to confuse faith formation with meaningless ornamental clichés and platitudes.
My brothers and sisters, bluntly speaking, God is calling us beyond the false ideal that temporal reward and/or suffering are evidence of God’s love and concern or disdain for his people. He has called us to labor in his vineyard. Though may it be through the heat of day, or through trial and discomfort, his promise remains steadfast and true, when he states, “Friend, I have done you no injustice.”