Imagine if the landowner in this parable were an actual employer at a business here in the United States in 2023. Someone who had hired individuals at the start of the day, throughout the day, at the end of the day, and gave everyone the same exact pay for the day. How do you think that would go over? You can imagine the reaction. There would be social media hysteria – maybe even calls demanding government intervention as people scream how this situation is colossally unfair. They’d have a point. We can’t shake that human reaction: putting ourselves in the shoes of the laborers who worked all day, seeing people coming on the job at the last hour and getting the same payment and feeling slighted, unappreciated, taken advantage of… or thinking that the owner is foolish, a chump. Having Jesus propose this as how God behaves, there’s a temptation to make St. Teresa of Avila’s words our own – “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!”
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 24, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
It’s not fair. Or at least it just doesn’t seem so to many of us. Jesus uses this parable in response to another one of Simon Peter’s questions. After having the cost and difficulty of discipleship spelled out again, you have to give it to our man, St. Peter, who always asks the tough questions that no one else is brave enough to ask. In short, Peter asks, “What’s in this for us – all the good we do, all the things we’ve given up, is it going to be worth it, Jesus?” Then Jesus responds with this parable. No doubt, it left them more confused than before. They saw Jesus perform amazing miracles – they experienced Jesus’ amazing miracles themselves. Yet He seems to keep reminding them of how deep the cost is, speaking in seeming riddles: the path to heaven being narrow and hard to navigate; taking up your cross and following Him; the need to lose your life in order to find it. It doesn’t make sense to them. We can hear the frustration. We can feel it ourselves.
It brought to mind the story of a woman named Gianna Beretta Molla. Born in 1922 in Italy not far from Milan, she was one of 13 children, of which only eight would survive to adulthood. One of those tragic losses happened when Gianna was only 14 years old, and her 26-year-old sister tragically died. Young Gianna found comfort in praying before the Blessed Sacrament and the rosary and started to take her faith more seriously. On a retreat soon after, she first learned how to align her daily life experiences with her faith life. Until then, she had struggled with academics, falling behind in classes and having to repeat some work in summer school. On this retreat, she learned about “offering up,” the thing she had to do, that she disliked and struggled with but chose to do her best as an offering out of love for Jesus. Soon after, at age 15, she wrote, “Jesus, I promise You to submit myself to all that You permit to befall me, make me only know Your will.” She wrote that at 15, which became foundational for her life. With this new vision, renewed in her faith, her grades turned around, and she found herself near the top of her class.
Despite struggling with health issues and dealing with the reality of another world war breaking out around her, she pursued a medical career, eventually becoming a well-respected doctor specializing in pediatrics- treating children and their mothers. Gianna saw her “job” as more than a job. She saw it as an opportunity to make God known, loved, and served in every corner of life. She once described it on a prescription pad: “This is a priestly mission. Just as priests can touch Jesus, we doctors touch Jesus in the bodies of our patients: in the poor, the young, the old, and children. Jesus makes himself seen in our midst…”
As respected and despite all the good she was doing in this part of Northern Italy, she wanted to join her brother, a priest named Fr. Alberto, who was doing missionary work in Brazil. In sharing his inability to help so many women who needed medical care, Gianna felt this was a divine assignment for her to fill. She grew more excited about the possibility that this was the vocation God had in mind – bringing together so many things that were near and dear to her. She grew more excited as she dreamed about this mission. Yet she encountered obstacle after obstacle that seemingly made it more and more impossible. It got to the point that the priests and bishops who knew her and whom she had gone to for guidance and trusted a great deal had to make her recognize that despite the fire that she felt in her heart for this, it seemed the Lord was making it clear this wasn’t the road He was calling her to follow.
She set that dream aside and offered this latest disappointment as a sacrifice to God. In the meantime, God was revealing to her what would be her greatest joy and treasured vocation. Her future husband, Pietro Molla, lived across the street from her medical practice. Gianna and Pietro had been so absorbed in their careers that they had hardly noticed one another, even though they had bumped into one another on several occasions. When a mutual friend of both was ordained a priest, they once again found their paths crossing as they attended his first Mass and began to finally see one another and eventually fell in love.
Their relationship grew, and the two began to dream of married life together and imagined the joy of welcoming little souls into their lives as being their greatest of privileges, which they experienced with the birth of three children within the first three years of their marriage. Their home was full of joy and little feet as Pietro and Gianna continued to balance full-time jobs in demanding fields. Pietro worried that his wife’s selflessness was spreading her too thin while at the same time knowing how near and dear her callings as a doctor and as a wife and mother were to her. Listening to his loving concerns, she promised that after their fourth child was born, “I will stop being a doctor, and I will be just a mamma.”
During this fourth pregnancy, she developed a tumor that caused great pain and distress and posed potential risks for her and her unborn child. Being a doctor, she understood the risks better than most. Being a staunch defender of life and the sacredness of life made abortion unthinkable. They could attempt a different procedure, most likely resulting in losing the baby. Or they could do a surgical procedure to try to remove the tumor, which would allow the pregnancy to continue but at best, would result in a challenging and painful labor and delivery. For Gianna, there was no other option.
The surgery was successful, and things progressed relatively normally for the remaining six months. Gianna would go into labor on April 20th, 1962, which happened to be Good Friday. While things started normally, the labor continued, the delivery was more delayed, and the possibility of losing both the mother and baby kept increasing. They had to perform a c-section, which saw Baby Gianna Emmanuela born healthy, but Gianna’s health immediately declined. She was overcome with infection and became weaker and weaker with each passing day. Realizing she was beyond the point of saving, she asked to be taken home to die more peacefully, which she did on April 28th.
It’s not fair.
Who would blame anyone for thinking that? Here’s this devout, selfless woman, and to die leaving her husband her four babies, not to mention the countless numbers of people who relied on her as a doctor, as a woman of faith behind? On a very human level, in our tit-for-tat world, where we’re constantly reduced to comparisons and evaluating how much someone else is getting and where I’m getting overlooked, you could argue that what happened to Gianna wasn’t right, which is why her story came to mind with today’s Gospel.
When we think about the laborers in the vineyard, not everyone puts in the same effort and works the same hours, yet they all get the same pay. It doesn’t seem right. But what Jesus is trying to get through to Peter and the 11 who are thinking of themselves as somewhat special in being named apostles and imagining that translates into some perks or extras if not now, then later. Jesus is telling Peter – the most significant thing, the most incredible moment for him, was when he heard Jesus call him to follow Him – and Peter did. The thing that mattered the most was being with Jesus. That Jesus, and Him alone, was the only thing that would bring fulfillment and fill the deepest longings, hopes, and dreams that Peter had in his heart. And as soon as Peter (and the others who were thinking it but kept their mouths shut as all this was going on) – understood that and appreciated that – well then their only hope would be that others would come to discover this truth themselves too. They would be excited that others came to know and love Jesus, that they didn’t miss the opportunity to know how meaningless life was, how meaningless life is without Him. The only thing that mattered, that matters is discovering Jesus – now and for all eternity.
That’s why Saints like Gianna’s are so important for us. Her life, death, and eternal life give us a real-life example and witness. We can hear and imagine the pains, setbacks, trials, and tribulations throughout Gianna’s life. Things that, understandably, she could be upset by or discouraged over. Things that caused her fear, anxiety, and sadness. Losing five siblings growing up is unimaginable. Struggling with health issues and academics is challenging. Thinking you’ve found your dream, your purpose in life, and then coming to realize it is not possible can be crushing for anyone. Just because we’re hearing her biography as a Saint, we can’t whitewash the reality that these were as painful and difficult for Gianna as it is for any one of us. And no doubt, some prayers might have sounded more like cries mixed with doubts and confusion. But what makes a Saint a saint is that perseverance in the tears. What makes a Saint a Saint is that even when things happen in life, you can legitimately argue, cry, scream ‘it’s not fair.’ is that they don’t lose sight of God, who is something more important than fair… He is, what we sang in that psalm today – He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger of great kindness. He is GOOD and compassionate toward all His works. He is JUST in all His ways and Holy in all His works. The Saints don’t have answers to why bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, or anything happens to anyone – any more than the rest of us do in all those philosophical paradoxes that often trip us up and cause us distress. But because they believe all those things about God and lean into them when confronted with difficulties, they find “the Lord IS near to all who call upon Him.
At Gianna’s wake and funeral, stories of countless lives touched by her, by her extraordinary dedication to God, and her faith demonstrated in her loving care to massive numbers of patients and her family just drew these vast crowds of people to come. They said that the funeral was so beautiful that it caused countless people to go to confession that day; they were just so moved. People began calling her a Saint right then and there. And that conviction didn’t stop after the funeral. Years after her death, after numerous people insisted she was a saint, the local bishop asked Pietro for permission to officially open Gianna’s cause for canonization. One of the conditions for a person to be declared a Saint is when people can connect two miracles to this individual’s intercession. In 1969, a young mother, after complications from a difficult labor and delivery, lay dying in a hospital. The doctors were scrambling, trying to get her to a specialized hospital that could save her, but they doubted she’d even survive the trip. One of the nurses, who was a religious nun, happened to have a small photo of Gianna and began asking for Gianna’s intercession. Immediately, to the astonishment of the doctors, the woman was cured. There wasn’t a trace of the tear they had just hours earlier planned on surgically replacing. The second miracle involved a mother, like Gianna, who was pregnant with her 4th child, who also experienced complications that seemed to threaten the lives of both mother and child and whose doctors were insisting on abortion as the only path forward, the local bishop suggested asking for Gianna’s prayers and despite all kinds of challenges and threats, both mother and baby Gianna Maria was born healthy, safe and made a perfect recovery.
Oh, and both of those miracles took place in Brazil, one in the hospital, started by Gianna’s brother, Fr. Alberto. The very place where Gianna had wanted to serve as a medical missionary alongside her brother that she had to set aside in life painfully, she, in more miraculous ways, was able to accomplish in her eternal life in heaven.
It isn’t fair – life, that is. We all can bring legitimate lists of things that back that statement up. And Jesus hasn’t come to make things “fair.” The crucifix is always set before us, as God shows us what this world will ultimately do, even to Him. But Jesus, as God himself, proves once again how good God is by suffering that crucifixion for us. Promising that those who take up their crosses in this life and follow Him, His way; trusting that He desires our good, now and always will know His great love. Will come to discover that’s the only thing that matters. And when that finally clicks, we will only want everyone else to come to know and experience that truth themselves.