"The first shall be last, and the last first."1
A lot of us, when we hear this selection from the Gospel, tend to side with the grumbling workers -- the ones who worked all day in the heat and received no more than those who worked only a few hours. It is just our natural idea of fairness: "a day's work for a day's pay." Perhaps we should note that our Lord is not describing the way things ought to be in the vineyards of this earth -- we see that he begins this parable (and it is just that, a parable) with the phrase "The kingdom of heaven is like...." Certainly, our Lord knew human nature well enough to know that if this sort of standard were set up for the businesses of earth, everyone would sleep until at least noon.
What our Lord is trying to illustrate is not an unworkable standard for agricultural labor, but, rather, the goodness of His Father in heaven. And certainly, each one of us ought to be grateful to know that God is generous. For the most part, we would be in great trouble if God were to judge by the strict standards of justice alone; we might be paralyzed with fear if we had to await judgement day knowing that God was going to evaluate us on the exact number of hours we spent during each of the days of our lives doing things that are good -- minus the number of hours spent doing things that are bad or simply useless. If He did that, we would probably all have to look forward to eternity contemplating a "negative pay-check."
It is a good thing for us, that God does not judge on such an exact basis -- that beyond His strict justice, God applies standards of mercy, and generosity, and love to His judgement. Were it otherwise, we might all be consigned to die in despair. The message of today's Gospel is primarily one of the virtue of hope -- an assurance that God will provide what we need for our salvation, if we but try to cooperate with His graces.
Yet, there is a somewhat ominous ending to the passage we read today: "Even so, the last shall be first, and the first last; for many are called but few are chosen." God is merciful and generous and kind, but His justice cannot be ignored altogether. He does expect us to make the effort to cooperate with His graces and to do what He requires of us on earth. This is why the Church places this Gospel together with what Saint Paul had to say to the Corinthians this morning.2
Paul cites the Old Testament -- if you have read the narrative of the Exodus you will understand.3 God called all of the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, He sustained them with bread and quail from heaven, and with water made by Moses to gush forth from a rock. Paul tells us that the rock was a symbol of Christ, but even that, coupled with God's forty years of sustenance and protection in the desert did not change the hearts of many in the Exodus. "With most of them God was not well pleased."
Our reaction to this, Paul tells us, is to treat our salvation like the crown given to the athlete who wins the race. The Corinthians would have been familiar with the idea of a crown of laurel leaves -- to us it might be a gold medal, or perhaps a cash prize. The athlete who goes off the competition knows that only one winner will emerge. There may be a bronze and a silver, but only one gold medal -- indeed there will be more athletes who take home no medal at all than those who do. Yet, if one is going to be an athlete in any serious sense of that word, one always trains and runs with the goal of winning the race. It may not be today, and perhaps it will be never, but the goal must be there, even if it is never satisfied with more than the knowledge that "I did my personal best."
The Church has us read this Epistle today because we are beginning that season of preparation that leads, very shortly, to Lent. Ash Wednesday will be here in seventeen days. It is time to make preparations for a good Lent -- our "personal best" Lent, if you will. This is the time for us to arrange our schedules so that we are less involved in worldly things during those forty days when we should be concerned more with prayer, and fasting, and spiritual reading, and good works. This is the reminder to make time to attend Mass more frequently, to attend the Stations of the Cross, to say one's daily prayers, and so forth. This is the reminder to look around for some good spiritual reading. This is a good time to start some of the Lenten practices, so that they will have become accustomed habits by the time Lent begins.
There is a spiritual contest to be won. Paul would tell us to strive to make our salvation a sure thing. "Many are called, but few are chosen." That would be a frightening thing, were we not given hope of God's mercy and generosity -- with that hope, we can make our salvation a sure thing by actively cooperating with God's graces. Now is the time to begin!