Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today we invite you to explore the world behind Jesus’s parable in Matthew with the help of historical theologian Richard Horsley; engage with Catholic Social Teaching’s legacy of labor justice and its critiques of capitalism; and embody Jesus’s call to economic justice for all with the help of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and the South Bronx Mutual Aid.
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Seek me YHWH while I may still be found,
call upon me while I am near!
Let the corrupt abandon their ways,
the evil their thoughts.
Let them return to YHWH, and I will have mercy on them;
return to YHWH, for I will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways,” says YHWH.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
Response: O God, You are near to all who call upon You.
I will extol You, O my God, / and I will bless Your Name forever and ever.
Every day will I bless You, / and I will praise Your Name forever and ever.
R: O God, You are near to all who call upon You.
Adonai, You are gracious and merciful, /slow to anger and of great kindness.
Adonai, You are good to all / and compassionate toward all Your works.
R: O God, You are near to all who call upon You.
Adonai, You are just in all Your ways / and holy in all Your works.
You are near to all who call upon You, /to all who call upon You in truth.
R: O God, You are near to all who call upon You.
I firmly trust and anticipate that I will never be put to shame for my hopes;
I have full confidence that, now as always,
Christ will be exalted through me, whether I live or die.
For to me, “life” means Christ; hence dying is only so much gain.
If, on the other hand, I am to continue living on earth,
that means productive toil for me—and I honestly do not know which I prefer.
I am strongly attracted to both:
I long to be freed from this life and to be with Christ, for that is the far better thing;
yet, it’s more urgent that I remain alive for your sakes.
Conduct yourselves, then, in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
If you do, whether I come and see you myself or hear about your behavior from a distance,
it will be clear that you are standing firm in unity of spirit,
and exerting yourselves with one accord for the faith of the Gospel.
Jesus said to the disciples,
“The kindom of God is like the owner of an estate
who went out at dawn to hire workers for the vineyard.
After reaching an agreement with them for the usual daily wage,
the owner sent them out to the vineyard.
“About mid-morning, the owner came out and saw others standing around the marketplace without work,
and said to them, ‘You go along to my vineyard and I will pay you whatever is fair.’
At that, they left.
“Around noon and again in the mid- afternoon, the owner came out and did the same.
Finally, going out late in the afternoon,
the owner found still others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’
‘No one has hired us,’ they replied.
The owner said, ‘You go to my vineyard, too.’
“When evening came, the owner said to the overseer,
‘Call the workers and give them their pay,
but begin with the last group and end with the first.’
When those hired late in the afternoon came up, they received a full day’s pay,
and when the first group appeared they assumed they would get more.
Yet, they received the same daily wage.
“Thereupon they complained to the owner,
‘This last group did only an hour’s work,
but you have put them on the same basis as those who have worked a full day
in the scorching heat.’
“My friends,’ said the owner to those who voiced this complaint,
‘I do you no injustice. You agreed on the usual wage, didn’t you?
Take your pay and go home.
I intend to give this worker who was hired last the same pay as you.
I am free to do as I please with my money.
Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“Thus, the last will be first and the first will be last.”
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
The last will be first
The parable that we read from Jesus today might be difficult for us to wrap our minds around. Here we have some people who were hired as day laborers. Some of them started at about six in the morning – so early! – and worked a twelve-hour shift in hot and unpleasant conditions. It certainly sounds like they earned their wage! But then other workers are added throughout the day, with the last group working only an hour before hanging it up for the day. They are paid the same wage for their labor as those who worked for twelve hours. By our standards of labor practices, this seems deeply unfair. What happened to “equal pay for equal work”? How could Jesus promote such a thing?
And then we hear God’s voice echoing from Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” Perhaps we’ve been thinking about labor all wrong. According to some biblical scholars, Matthew had the final judgment in mind and intended to address resentment among communities involved in the Jesus-movements. Some of them had followed Jesus a long way down a difficult path, while others had just joined, and all of them would be given equal grace at the end of time. While certainly valid, theologian Richard Horsley, in his book Jesus in Context: Power, People, and Performance, warns us not to separate the spiritual and religious elements of the gospels from the economic and political contexts with which they were inextricably linked. Jesus, and the first communities who followed him, were quite literally concerned with whether the people of Galilee would have enough to eat under the political and economic oppression of the Roman Empire.
Let’s begin by mapping the landscape of overlapping religious, political, and economic powers in Roman Palestine. According to Horsley, the day laborers who appear in Matthew’s parable were likely people who managed a subsistence living on their ancestral lands, but who were unable to make ends meet because of the taxation from the Roman Empire and the Temple-State. It is important to the early “Jesus movement” that these people still owned their own land, because that kept them from complete dependence on the elite, and therefore more free to participate in counter-movements like the one Jesus inaugurated. Horsley places Jesus within this network of relationships. Far from a solitary man who presented isolated sayings to anyone who listened, Jesus was entwined in a Jewish community that regularly practiced resistance to Roman imperial rule.
Interpreters of the gospels have tended to read a modern understanding of state and church as separate spheres into Jesus’s social context, which simply does not accurately represent the religious or political scene of first-century Palestine (though, I would argue, it does not really represent our social fabric either). Roman systems of power engaged Jewish religious leaders to maintain Roman imperialism alongside Roman political rulers. The resulting gap between the religious elite (who were primarily high priests) and the common people, who mostly lived in village communities, was immense. There are many nuances to the reasons that the religious elite maintained this system, but the fact remains that while the religious elite were wealthy, Jewish people in the villages were quite literally starving, in no small part because of the resources demanded of them by the Temple.
Jesus’s parable from this passage in Matthew underlines a critique of this economic injustice. It would have been the system of taxation that made day labor necessary for the characters in the parable. And importantly, just because you don’t get the chance to work a full day does not mean that you don’t need to eat. It is this economic emphasis on meeting people’s needs and the acknowledgement of everyone’s intrinsic worth as human beings that is spoken of in the Gospel. The Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew wants to save people from direct reliance on imperial powers. It is any economic system that allows people to go hungry and rely on wage-labor that is oppressive and must be resisted.
For further reading: Richard Horsley, Jesus in Context: Power, People, & Performance; Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine.
Commentary by Taylor Ott
Engage Catholic Social Teaching
The modern tradition of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has been concerned with justice for workers since its initiation in 1891. A common assertion, made especially clear in Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical, Laborem exercens, is that work is made for the person, not vice versa. People have the right to food, water, family, education, and community, and work should support those things so that people can live full lives. According to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (1891), the standard by which we should judge a fair wage is whether it can support the worker, their spouse, and their children (45-46). This challenges our economic system in the U.S. (and in many other places), where the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is not even enough to support the worker in many places. But such arguments miss the point of labor for CST. The value of work should not primarily be measured by what the worker produces, but in whether it allows the worker to live well.
As with other issues of social ethics, problems do not lie only with employers who refuse to pay a living wage (or propagate other unfair labor practices), but in the systems that allow them to do so or fail to support people in making ethical choices. One of these is a capitalist logic that values people only for the production they can extract and the profit they make. As Francis writes in Fratelli tutti, “Some economic rules have proved effective for growth, but not for integral human development” (21). He continues: “In today’s world, many forms of injustice persist, fed by reductive anthropological visions and by a profit-based economic model that does not hesitate to exploit, discard and even kill human beings” (22). Capitalism, on its own, maximizes profit no matter the cost to human livelihood and well-being.
Further, CST helps us recognize that the economy now functions on a global scale, and that actions taken in one part of the world inevitably affect another. When we can’t see the effects of our consumption in our immediate surroundings, it can be easy to forget the human and environmental toll that things like cheap clothing, out-of-season produce, and oil-based energy have. When corporations are incentivized and allowed to maximize profit on a global scale, they generally will. That means that many of the products that we in the U.S. and Europe have access to come at the cost of underpaid work and environmental degradation in the Two-Thirds World. Living by the principle of solidarity means caring not just for the immediate effects of our actions, but rather making sure that human and environmental rights are protected globally and that human dignity is always upheld.
A Contemplative Exercise
Let’s imagine what the inbreaking of the kingdom of God would look like if we fore-fronted solidarity and the good of people and environment in our economics. What would happen if we tried to pay more attention to God’s thoughts?
Analysts say that the world does not have a food shortage problem, but a food distribution problem. What would it look like to make sure that everyone had enough to eat? If we took seriously the labor standard of CST that one person’s wage should support them and their family, how would our economy and our world be different? What might we have to relinquish in order for it to be so? Finally, how would our relationships and interactions be different if we consciously decentered capitalist logics from our thought? What might it be like if we didn’t ask about someone’s labor production as a way to know them?
Mary Harris Jones, often known better by her nickname of Mother Jones, was a prominent figure in union organizing between 1877 and 1930 across the U.S. Though her views on women’s natural domesticity and anti-suffragism would give us pause today, they reflect how informed she was by her Catholicism, which is often deemphasized in biographical accounts. Knowing the history of CST and Pope Leo XIII’s support for unions, however, we can see that she was acting in alignment with her Catholic faith in the public square and on the picket line. As she is said to have quipped, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”
She worked especially in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and often with miners. She also showed special concern for the conditions of child workers, writing in her autobiography that “the little mill child is crucified between the two thieves of its childhood; capital and ignorance.” Now listed among the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor, it is interesting to wonder what Mother Jones would think of the economic policies of the people who inscribed her name there.
You can find Mother Jones’s autobiography on the Project Gutenberg website.
Ariadna Phillips founded the South Bronx Mutual Aid (SBXMA) at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic as a means for neighbors to support each other in times of economic hardship, especially when government services are insufficient or overwhelmed. As Phillips put it, “mutual aid is cooperation between neighbors for the sake of the common good, a form of caring for one another. It is different from charity. Mutual Aid is a form of building and advocating for community wellbeing.”
This organization provides a kind of alternative economy, one that is not bound by capitalist logics, but by an ethos of care. It is not unlike the kind of caring economics that CST and Matthew’s gospel call for. Neighbors can volunteer for a number of things that fit their skill set, such as stocking community fridges, providing legal support, fundraising, and emergency relief. They also emphasize maintaining the dignity of people who obtain aid by offering direct delivery for food relief, obviating the need to stand in long lines at food pantries.
Read more or sign up to volunteer with SBXMA at sbxma.com.
Image description: Street art painting on a wall. A man in tattered clothing sits cross-legged with a cup in front of him, and holds a sign that reads “Keep your coins, I want change.”