Better Late Than Never
Most of us have probably noticed during our elementary school days that when one or two of our classmates came late our teacher would ask in an angry tone why they were late in coming to class. The teacher was just concerned that her pupils come to class on time. Coming late was called tardiness. The opposite of this was punctuality.
I remember some teachers would punish the pupils who came late by making them stand at the back of the classroom for some time.
The teachers hated tardiness in their pupils. A few would even tell the class that if they came in very late it would be better if they would not enter the classroom, they would just disturb the class.
There are even schools which have the policy that three instances of tardiness are considered as an absence.
When I taught however in the college level I encouraged late students to come into the classroom and join the class. I even remarked that even if there was only a minute left to the time of the class they were still welcome to come in. I emphasized before them this maxim: Better late than never.
This maxim is exemplified in our Gospel reading today. The workers who were very late in coming to work, in fact, they were eleven hours late, were given a full day's wage. Let us listen to Jesus telling us how these very late comers were given their pay.
"When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.' When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage."
We can guess that most of the workers came in late, at least three hours late. The standard working hours in the time of Jesus was twelve hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., not eight or so hours as we have today.
Many were late three hours. They came in at 9 in the morning. Others came in twelve noon, six hours late. Still there were others who came at three in the afternoon, very late by nine hours.
Finally the last group came in eleven hours late, at five in the afternoon, just one hour before the end of a work day.
Yet, all of them received a full-day's wage, at that time called a denarius in Latin, or a drachma in Greek. Today we call this a minimum daily wage which varies from country to country, or even from city to city in the same country, depending on the living standards of the place.
When I was young and even today I hear preachers and homilists who explain this parable of Jesus by saying that all of us, whether we become Christians at an early age or in the middle years or in old age or even in death bed, all of us receive the same eternal life from God.
I see two problems with this interpretation. The first is that eternal life is a gift of God to us. It is not payment for what we have done. The infant in baptism is given this gift of eternal life even before he or she could perform any work which can give him or her any merit. Unfortunately most of the commentaries on this passage have this interpretation.
The second problem with this interpretation is that it apparently portrays Jesus as saying to all intents and purposes, "It does not matter if you work in God's kingdom when you are young or old or on the brink of departing from this earth, I will give you a full life's payment or reward." Obviously this was not Jesus' attitude and intention. We know that for Jesus the earlier we enter and work in God's kingdom the better it is for us. This is why he offered this kingdom to children. He told his disciples, "Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (Matthew 19:14).
That interpretation therefore is not the intention of Jesus in this parable. So, what was Jesus driving at in this parable?
This parable was in answer to Peter's question in the preceding chapter. In chapter 19, verse 27 Peter asked Jesus: "Here we have put everything aside to follow you. What can we expect from it?" Jesus answered: "I give you my solemn word, in the new age when the son of man takes his seat upon a throne befitting his glory, you who have followed me shall likewise take your places on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Moreover, everyone who has given up home, brothers or sisters, father or mother, wife or children or property for my sake will receive many times as much and inherit everlasting life. Many who are first shall come last, and the last shall come first."
It is this last statement of Jesus that he now explains by a parable. What did he really mean when he said that many who are first shall come last, and the last shall come first?
The explanation is very obvious in our Gospel reading. The first were those who were hired first, at 6 in the morning. The last were those who were hired last, at five in the late afternoon.
Notice the sequence of giving the wage in the parable. Those who were hired last were the ones who were first given their wage. And the last who were given their wage were those who were hired first. This is the obvious meaning of the statement of Jesus in answer to Peter's question in the previous chapter: "Many who are first shall come last, and the last shall come first." That is, many who are hired first shall come last in receiving their wage and the last hired shall come first in receiving their pay.
But Jesus added a detail in his parable which gives the reason for this arrangement of giving the workers their pay. Those who were hired first objected. They thought they would receive more because they were hired first, they worked the full twelve hours "in the scorching heat". But they received the same amount as those who worked only one hour. They thought the owner of the vineyard was unjust to them.
The owner answered that he was not unjust because he paid them what was in the contract of a day's work. And he was free to do with what he had because he was generous.
Now the lesson of the parable is clear. Jesus was in effect telling his disciples: 'I hired you first. Later I will hire others to work in my vineyard. Do not think that you will be the first to receive your pay in working for me. Those coming after you, even those who work just a few days before I come back, will receive their pay first. And I will give them as much as I promised you, they will also receive many times as much and inherit everlasting life.'
Who are these late comers in the vineyard of the Lord? We are those late comers. The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II is clear that all of us are workers of the Lord, priests, religious or laity. It says in number 33, . "The lay faithful, precisely because they are members of the Church, have the vocation and mission of proclaiming the Gospel: they are prepared for this work by the sacraments of Christian initiation and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit."
We will receive our pay ahead of the apostles and first martyrs. And we will receive as much as they would receive because God is generous. There is no limit to his resources, unlike the resources of this world which is limited. That is why we have the science of economics, to make a system of properly distributing these limited resources. With God his resources are unlimited.
There are thousands of saints who only worked for a short time in the kingdom of God but they have been given great rewards which we think are for those veterans in the service of God. A unique case is that of St. Dominic Savio who was only 14 years old when he died. He was given the honors of sainthood by the Church, the youngest saint not a martyr canonized by the Church until 2017 when Jacinta and Francisco of the Fatima apparitions became the youngest saints so canonized.
The first reading tells us why this is happening, those who work less time in the vineyard of the Lord are given full rewards. It is because his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways his ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are God's ways above our ways, and his thoughts above our thoughts.
And the second reading tells us to work until our death. Let us follow Paul's example of "fruitful labor". Let us not work for reward but just productive toil for the glory of God. We can imitate the members of the Society of Jesus or Jesuits whose motto is in Latin Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, that is, for the greater glory of God.
St. Augustine exclaimed "Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you" in his CONFESSIONS (Chapter 27). We can tell him now, Better late than never.
Let us pray as we bow our heads.
Lord Jesus, you motivate us to work in your kingdom by telling us that you would pay us full reward even if we work there long after that of your apostles and first disciples. You are enough for us as our reward. Amen.
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Note for the readers:
The Mass readings are from the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). This is where our Lectionary gets the readings.
NAB stands for New American Bible (before it was revised). This is the translation I use. Unless otherwise stated the text I use is from this translation.
AV stands for Authorized Version of the Bible. It is more commonly referred to as the King James Bible. It is the version most used in English literature, therefore it is the one known more by the English speaking world.