Balik-Tanaw | 16th Sunday after Pentecost: And the Last Shall Be First

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By DEBORRAH RAMOS REYES, Ed.D.*

Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18,
Isaiah 55:6-9,
Philippians 1:20-24, 27,
Matt 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ (vv. 1-7)

News of lowly paid workers literally drowning in pools of miseries is nothing new in the Philippines. These are also the people who are haplessly paid the least and helplessly deprived of safety gears and safe working conditions. When without job calls, they scavenge for recyclable trash, and in their inactive hours stand on wait for news of job opportunities.

There are more and more people facing less fortunate situations. They are our socially crippled and deformed neighbors who populate the underbellies, cracks, and margins of our cities and townships. The world around them maybe reaping the blessings of the exchanges among the rich and privileged , but the underclass stay in the margin . They are simply forgotten, abandoned, and reduced to standing by idly in the streets (istambay) waiting for some good news of pagkakitaan.

These people are our neighbors and they are not unlike the “istambays” or unemployed workers in our text. They are discriminated against by the privileged and those blessed with opportunities because of their “irregular” status in all things. They are, in the eyes of the “firsts” in our current social ordering are eye sores and dregs of society. In many cases the istambays and the poor are even thumbed down whenever they raise their voices in organized protest. They are looked down as an annoyance and a disturbance to the peace of the privileged. When it comes to social graces, the istambays are expected to be the least and last.

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ (vv. 8-12)

The grumblings of the “firsts” maybe being popularly interpreted at present through the lenses of workers receiving and experiencing unjust wages and unfair working conditions and, thus, problematizes the employer in the parable itself. However, even in its conventional or traditional meaning, the parable is very clear about what it is saying about the republic of God.

In the republic of God, which the parables of Jesus are about, social expectations like the above – of the firsts being always firsts – holds no sway. In the republic of God the social imagination of the privileged is subverted and negated. In the republic of God, the hierarchs of class society are to dictate the terms no longer and that their basis of privilege have withered away. The republic of God was inaugurated precisely for those who were marginalized and forced into “standing by” waiting endlessly for the morsels of the rich.

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (vv 12-16)

The republic of God as narrated in this parable of Jesus rouses hope among the istambays sa kanto, i.e., forced into joblessness, helplessness and hopelessness by unjust systems of relationships. The poor and marginalized may be the least and the last now but the gospel of God’s republic proclaims an egalitarian order that values everyone as deserving of a place and a plate in the banquet of abundance.

Prayer

Most merciful God of justice, whose heart is with the poor and underprivileged, help us see your design for our lives and our need to participate in your work of social reversal. This is our prayer in the name of Jesus, our liberator. Amen. ()

*The author is an Associate Professor of Liturgy and Music, Union Theological Seminary, Philippines

Balik-Tanaw is a group blog of Promotion of Church People’s Response. The Lectionary Gospel reflection is an invitation for meditation, contemplation, and action. As we nurture our faith by committing ourselves to journey with the people, we also wish to nourish the perspective coming from the point of view of hope and struggle of the people. It is our constant longing that even as crisis intensifies, the faithful will continue to strengthen their commitment to love God and our neighbor by being one with the people in their dreams and aspirations. The Title of the Lectionary Reflection would be Balik –Tanaw , isang PAGNINILAY . It is about looking back (balik) or revisiting the narratives and stories from the Biblical text and seeing ,reading, and reflecting on these with the current context (tanaw).

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