Fr Frank’s Homily – 20 September 2020

By Fr Frank Brennan SJ, 19 September 2020
Image: Lasseter Winery/Unsplash.


Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 144(145): 2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1: 20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16

20 September 2020


In today’s gospel from Matthew we hear yet another of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of heaven. In this one, the landowner needs workers for his vineyard. He goes out at sunrise and commissions the first lot of workers who put in a 12-hour day. They’re to receive a day’s pay for a day’s work. All fair and above board. The landowner then goes out at 9am and commissions another lot of workers who put in a 9-hour day. They’re told, ‘I will give you a fair wage.’ He goes out again at midday and commissions another lot of workers who put in 6 hours labour. He goes out again at 3pm and commissions another lot of workers who put in 3 hours work. He goes out one last time at 5pm and commissions another lot of workers who put in only 1 hour’s work. At sunset, they are all to be paid. He pays the last first. And he pays everyone exactly the same amount. Everyone gets a full day’s pay whether they worked one hour or twelve hours. Rubbing salt into the wounds or going to great lengths to prove his point (whatever the point might happen to be), the landowner makes those who worked twelve hours wait to be paid last, enduring the indignity of seeing those who came after them being paid the same for less work, and being able to get home before them. As the landowner becomes more benevolent to the latecomers, we’re left wondering if he is being less just to the early birds. As he displays more mercy to those who hardly worked at all, we’re left wondering where’s the justice in that for those who worked their guts out all day?


When I was a university student, they still printed afternoon newspapers. Now that’s a long time ago. Often the newspaper proprietors needed casual labourers who could come and place advertising supplements in the newspapers. Long-time casuals would be employed all day, commencing in the morning. We uni students would be taken on after lunch for a few hours. We got paid less than half what the long-time casuals received. We were all paid in cash in those days. The long-time casuals were paid first. The uni students were paid last. That was all perfectly fair – both the rates of pay, and the order in which we were paid.

In the parable, both the rates of pay and the order in which people were paid have been thrown out of kilter to make a point. Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.

The scripture scholar Daniel Harrington says: ‘There is a balance between God’s justice and God’s mercy. Those who were hired first receive a just reward, one to which they had already agreed. The fact that the latecomers received the same reward can be credited to God’s mercy.’ [1] And scripture scholar Brendan Byrne says, ‘The parable addresses the resentment felt by those who had spent long years in faithful observance of the Torah at the welcome and acceptance Jesus gave to those who appeared to come so late to any sense of conversion.’ [2]

On 8 April 1832, at St Mary the Virgin, the University Church in Oxford, the Anglican vicar, one John Henry Newman, preached a homily on justice as a principle of divine governance. He had written to one of his friends a few days before warning that the sermon was directed against a particular writer Sir James McIntosh, Knight, who ‘supposes benevolence, unmixed and absolute, to be the attribute of the Divine Governance’ [3]. We moderns are all too familiar with the type of person to whom Newman was reacting – the sort who thinks that if there be a God, then God is all-loving and all-forgiving, so it matters little what we do in terms of right relations with God or with our neighbour. Newman commenced his homily with these words: ‘There will ever be persons who take a favourable view of human nature, as it actually is found in the world, and of the spiritual condition and the prospects of mankind.’ [4] Newman was not one of them.

In words which resonate for us in an age of a pandemic and a time of lockdown when tempers are fraying and when our politicians and experts are shifting the blame for mistakes anywhere but where it belongs, Newman said, ‘But, fairly as this superficial view of human nature answers in peaceful times; speciously as it may argue, innocently as it may experimentalize, in the rare and short-lived intervals of a nation’s tranquillity; yet, let persecution or tribulation arise, and forthwith its imbecility is discovered. It is but a theory; it cannot cope with difficulties; it imparts no strength or loftiness of mind; it gains no influence over others. It is at once shattered and crushed in the stern conflict of good and evil; disowned, or rather overlooked, by the combatants on either side, and vanishing, no one knows how or whither.’ [5]

Newman was concerned that too many worldly people were able to find a ‘false cheerfulness’ and ‘ill-founded hope’ believing ‘that evil is but remedial and temporary; that sin is of a venial nature; that repentance is sufficient atonement for it; that the moral sense is substantially but an instinct of benevolence; and that doctrinal opinions do not influence our character or prospects, nor deserve our serious attention.’ [6] Newman was particularly worried about those who thought that belief in a benevolent God was all you needed to be able to live a worldly life, going along with the faddish opinions of the Age, and discounting the possibility of divine judgment and punishment. He was searching for a way to hold in tension God’s justice, mercy and benevolence.

Our God is not a God of unmixed justice. Our God is not a God of unmixed mercy. Our God is not a God of unmixed benevolence. Our God is a God of justice, mercy and benevolence.

Newman proclaimed: God’s ‘Governance is not one of absolute unmixed justice, which, of course, (were it so) would reduce every one of us to a state of despair. Nothing, however, is told us in nature of the limits of the two rules, of love and of justice, or how they are to be reconciled; nothing to show that the rule of mercy, as acting on moral agents, is more than the supplement, not the substitute of the fundamental law of justice and holiness. And, let it be added, taking us even as we are, much as each of us has to be forgiven, yet a religious person would hardly wish the rule of justice obliterated. It is a something which he can depend on and recur to; it gives a character and a certainty to the course of Divine Governance; and, tempered by the hope of mercy, it suggests animating and consolatory thoughts to him; so that, far from acquiescing in the theory of God’s unmixed benevolence, he will rather protest against it as the invention of those who, in their eagerness to conciliate the enemies of the Truth, care little about distressing and sacrificing its friends.’ [7]

Whether we’re first or last in the queue for work or in the queue for payment, we Christians know that we depend on our God who displays all three attributes: justice, mercy and benevolence. All three are signs of the kingdom breaking in here and now, and of the kingdom which is to come. And all three should be aspects of our own lives too. In what proportions, only each of us can discern before our God.

I must confess I would still prefer a landowner who pays out the long-term workers first, according justice to them, and mercy and benevolence to the others without needlessly brandishing that mercy and benevolence before those who will receive only their just deserts. When tempted to think there is some mathematical formula for us to apply in our relations with each other, mixing the right recipe of justice, mercy and benevolence, let’s be consoled by today’s first reading from Isaiah:

My thoughts are not your thoughts,

my ways not your ways – it is the Lord who speaks.

Yes, the heavens are as high above the earth

as my ways are above your ways,

my thoughts above your thoughts.

 In the week ahead, let’s strive to put on the mind and heart of Christ – bringing justice, mercy and benevolence into our daily relating, dealing, decision making and judgements. Let’s pray for the grace to be more Christ-like, knowing that the last will be first, and the first, last.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).


[1] Harrington, D. J., The Gospel of Matthew, 2007, (Vol. 1, p. 285). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

[2] Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden, St Pauls, 2004, p. 153

[3] J H Newman to Richard Hurrell Froude, 5 April 1832, Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Volume III, Clarendon, 1979, p. 35

[4] J H Newman, Sermon VI, in Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006, J D Earnest and G Tracey (eds.), p. 78

[5] Ibid, p. 80

[6] Ibid, p. 81

[7] Ibid, p. 87


Read Daily
* indicates required