Year A – 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Five Sons

[Ezek.18:25-28; Phil.2:1-11; Mt.21:28-32]

It can be hard to motivate children, can’t it? We ask them to do something. We remind them, we bribe them, we kid and cajole them. Sometimes we succeed, but sometimes we don’t.

In Jesus’ Parable of the Two Sons, a father asks his two sons to go out and work in his vineyard. The first son says no, but later he has a change of heart and he starts working. The second son says yes, but in fact he does nothing. Does that sound familiar?

In this story, the father represents God, and the vineyard represents the people of Israel, our community of faith.

The first son represents sinners, like the tax collectors and prostitutes, who initially reject God but later change their minds and start doing his will. And the second son represents those who at first seem saintly, like the chief priests and the elders. They outwardly say yes to God, but really do nothing at all. They have other priorities.

In this parable, Jesus is warning us. He’s saying that those who reject our loving Father, but later repent and obey, will go to heaven. But those who give a meaningless yes to God will miss out, unless they change their ways. Our words mean nothing if our promises aren’t followed by action.

As Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, “It’s not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my father in heaven” (Mt.7:21).

Neither of these two sons is given to us as the model to follow, because the ideal person is the one who immediately says yes to the Father and carries out his wishes. That’s what Jesus did. As Paul says in our second reading, Jesus emptied himself and became obedient, even to the point of death on a Cross. And God was so pleased that he gave him a name above all other names. So, Jesus is the model for us all to follow.

The first son was late in doing his Father’s will, but he wasn’t too late. Over the years, that’s what many sinners have come to learn, and many even became saints. St Augustine is a good example, but there have been others.

St Paul literally terrorised Christians before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. St Matthew was a hated tax-collector before becoming a disciple.

And in England, St Philip Howard was a notorious womaniser and gambler. But when he heard St Edmund Campion eloquently defend the faith in the Tower of London, he was so impressed that he reconciled with his wife and he returned to the Church. [i]

Today, however, many people are much too distracted to ever hear our loving God calling them.

Consider Leo Tolstoy’s story of three women who went to the well for some water. Nearby, a wise old man watched and listened as the women talked about their sons. ‘My son,’ said the first woman, ‘is so skillful; he always does things better than the other children.’

‘My son,’ said the second woman, ‘sings so well, so beautifully, like a nightingale! No-one has such a beautiful voice as him.’

‘And you,’ they asked the third woman who was quiet. ‘Why don’t you say something about your son?’

‘Oh, he has nothing which I could praise, or tell about him,’ she replied. ‘My son is only a common boy, there’s nothing so special about him.’

The women filled their buckets with water and they headed home. The old man followed slowly behind. But the buckets were heavy, so the women stopped for a rest. Suddenly the three boys came towards them.

The first one turned cartwheels, and the women shouted: ‘What a skilled boy! Good job!’ The second one sang beautifully, like a nightingale, and the women listened with tears in their eyes.

The third boy went to his mother, took the buckets and went home. Then the women asked the old man: ‘What do you think about our sons?’

‘Where are your sons?’ asked the surprised old man. ‘I can see only one son!’

In this story, the wise old man is God himself. Unlike the others, he’s not distracted by the song and dance. The only boy he sees is the third one who carries his mother’s buckets. He’s the only person who accepts his call to humble service.

Right now, we’re all being asked the same question: are we doing the will of the Father? Is it Yes or No?

Deep in our hearts we know the answer. Fortunately, it’s not too late to change. But remember this:

Our ‘Yes’ is worthless if it’s not reflected in the way we live.


Year A – 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Labouring in the Vineyard

(Is.55:6-9; Phil.1:20-24, 27; Mt.20:1-16)

On a hill in Jerusalem, near Bethlehem, there’s a college called Tantur. Every morning, outside the gate, dozens of Palestinians stand there waiting, not for a bus, but for work. They are day labourers, waiting for someone to give them a job.

Something similar occurred during the Great Depression in Sydney, when men used to walk the ‘Hungry Mile’ from wharf to wharf in the docklands area, looking for work. The lucky ones got a full day’s work, others only a few hours.  But many waited all day for nothing.

This hard life is reflected in Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. A landowner needs labourers to harvest his grapes. At 6.00 am he approaches a group of men waiting at the marketplace. He offers some of them work, at the standard rate of one denarius a day, and off they go. 

The owner returns at 9.00 am, at noon, at 3.00 pm and even at 5.00 pm.  Each time he collects more workers, offering them a fair wage for their labour.

At sunset, he pays them. The last to arrive are paid first, the first are paid last. They all receive one denarius. But some start grumbling. They think that’s unfair: ‘We’ve worked all day in the hot sun and they’ve done very little.  Why are they treated equally?’ 

In explaining this story, it may help to recognise that the late starters aren’t idlers. They want to work; indeed, they’ve waited since dawn for someone to hire them. 

It may also help to understand this parable’s scriptural background. The Bible often refers to the people of Israel as God’s vineyard (e.g. Jn.15:5).  It tells us that God brought this vine out of Egypt, and that he cared for it by clearing a new land, and planting and watering that vine so that it would produce good fruit (Ps.80:8-9; Is.5:2; Is.27:2-3).

But on returning, God only found poor fruit (Is.5:7).  He was disappointed, and let conquerors invade his land (Ps.80:9-19).  However, he did promise that he’d return one day to replant that vine (Am.9:15), and make sure it flourished (Hos.14:5-10).

That’s the background to this parable. The landowner is God. The vineyard is his kingdom. The first labourers are the people of Israel, the Jews, to whom God first revealed his kingdom. And the later workers are the Gentiles who discovered Jesus at different times in history (Eph.2:11-13). [i]

Today, we are the labourers in the vineyard. (Or at least, we’re meant to be.) And where is that vineyard? It’s the day-to-day circumstances in which we find ourselves. The vines we’re asked to lovingly tend are the people who surround us.

In our society, we tend to take a transactional view of things: if I do this, then I expect to get that. We have so many rules about this, and quite often we even expect God to comply.

But as Isaiah says in our first reading, God’s ways aren’t our ways. He doesn’t think like we do. He doesn’t pay his labourers by the hour or according to their skills.

God knows that each of us has a unique combination of talents, challenges and opportunities in life. As Pope St John Paul II once wrote, ‘Each of us has a story of our life that is our own; and each of us has a story of our soul that is our own’. [ii] God respects this, and mercifully, he chooses to love us all totally and equally.

We see this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:29-30), where the wayward son who returns home is loved just as much as the older brother who never left.

And while nailed to the Cross, Jesus says to the good thief Dismas, ‘Today you’ll be with me in paradise’ (Lk.23:39-43). Dismas is a repentant criminal and a late convert, yet he still receives the same reward as Jesus’ disciples.

In her book Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line, Karen Edmisten tells the stories of 13 famous people who joined the Church at the end of their lives. This includes Oscar Wilde, the actors John Wayne and Gary Cooper, Buffalo Bill, the gangster Dutch Schultz, and King Charles II of England.

The journey to God for each of them was very different, but the result is always the same: eternal life. God loves us all completely, even when we don’t deserve it. [iii]

Right now, God is inviting us all to share in the same reward of eternal life. All we must do is to agree to help Jesus in his vineyard, spreading his love as best we can.

Accepting this invitation is a bit like catching a train. Some people buy their tickets early, while others rush to the station at the last minute.

The important thing is getting on board before it’s too late.

[i] Scott Hahn: Sunday Bible Reflections, First and Last.

[ii] S Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire – Year A, St Pauls Publications, New York, 2005:127.

[iii] Karen Edmiston, Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington IN, 2013.

Year A – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On the Executioner’s Soul

(Ecc.27:30-28.7; Rom.14:7-9; Mt.18:21-35)

Could you ever forgive someone who tortured you?

In 1940, when the Nazis captured Paris, the gifted Swiss-born pianist Maïti Girtanner was 18 years old. ‘I knew from a young age I was meant to be a pianist,’ she said. ‘Music was my life.’

A year later, Maïti was helping the French Resistance, smuggling people and messages out of occupied France. She saved the lives of dozens of Allied soldiers and Jewish families. When she sensed their fear, she asked them: ‘Do you believe in God? So, pray to him and keep going.’

Being bilingual, she found it easy to charm the Nazi soldiers, visiting them and giving piano recitals – all the while collecting intelligence for the Resistance. 

In October 1943, the Gestapo arrested her and several others. During her lengthy interrogation, a young Nazi doctor named Leo methodically tortured her by clubbing her spine. The pain was excruciating. This was her time of passion, she thought.

However, her deep Christian faith sustained her. She encouraged her fellow prisoners to have hope, and she urged them to talk to each other. ‘They tried to make animals of us,’ she said, ‘but speech allowed us to remain human.’

In 1944 she was rescued by the Swiss Red Cross, but her spine was so badly damaged she could barely walk. She couldn’t have children, nor could she play the piano again. [i] For years, hearing a piano made her cry with rage and regret. ‘But…I don’t hold it against anyone,’ she later said. ‘That would be useless and it wouldn’t give me back my fingers.’

She also once wrote to a friend: ‘I shan’t make a tragedy of my life.’

She suffered chronic pain for the rest of her life, but refused to turn her grief into hatred or resentment. Instead, she prayed for the grace to forgive.

She became a philosophy tutor, got her driving licence and deepened her Christian faith by becoming a Dominican Tertiary. She found that giving herself to others gave new meaning to life.

Then one day in 1984, Leo the executioner unexpectedly contacted Maïti in Paris. He was elderly and scared, because he had a terminal illness.

At first, he wrote asking Maïti if she still believed in God and heaven. Then he visited her, begging forgiveness. Through her pain, she reached out to him, held his head in her hands and kissed it. In that moment she knew she had forgiven him.[ii]

Just as Jesus forgave his enemies, so Maïti forgave Leo. ‘I embraced him to drop him into the heart of God,’ she said.

Leo received a fine gift that day, but Maïti received an even greater one.  She had prayed for 40 years for the grace to forgive, because she knew it would set her free. And that’s just what happened. ‘Forgiving him liberated me,’ she said.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we should always forgive others, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. In other words, always. The number seven signals perfection in the Bible.

With these words, Jesus is telling us that we are obliged to forgive anyone who has offended us. And we must seek forgiveness from anyone we might have offended. 

He says something similar after his Sermon on the Mount. When you’re at worship, Jesus says, and you remember that you have yet to forgive someone (or be forgiven by someone), go and put things right, and then come back to God (Mt.5:23-24).

Why? It’s because God is love, and we too must be loving if we want his divine life and power flowing through us.

Here’s the point: when we fail to forgive, our relationship with God is interrupted.

Of course, it’s not easy to forgive others, and it can be hard to say sorry, but remember what Jesus said to St Faustina, ‘The cause of your falls is that you rely too much on yourself and too little on me.’ [iii]

Jesus is always there for us. If you find forgiving difficult, just ask him for help, just as Maïti Girtanner did.  

Maïti died in Paris in 2014, aged 92. Her biography, published in 2006, is called Even the Executioners Have a Soul. [iv]

She had a choice, either to live a life of bitterness and hatred, or to forgive the man who had caused her disability.

‘Looking at my existence,’ she said, ‘I understood that a life is not measured by the projects we set for ourselves or the ideas we have of ourselves, but by the way we live it, faced with the circumstances imposed on us.’ [v]

She chose the way of forgiveness; the way of love.

It transformed her life, and it saved the soul of an executioner.

[i] K.V. Turley. ‘What Happened When This Woman Met Her Nazi Torturer’. National Catholic Register (December 6, 2018).


[iii] St Maria Faustina Kowlska, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Marian Press, Stockbridge MA, 2007:529 (n.1488).

[iv] Maiti Girtanner & Guillaume Tabard, Même les Bourreaux ont une âme.

[v] Maïti Gitanner, The Force of Forgiveness,

Year A – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Rocks and Islands

(Ezek.33:7-9; Rom.13:8-10; Mt.18:15-20)

If someone hurts you, what do you do?  Do you nurse your anger and pain? Do you retaliate or complain? Or do you seek reconciliation and healing?

In his song ‘I am a Rock’, Paul Simon tells the story of someone who has been hurt and has withdrawn from the world.  ‘I am a rock,’ he sings, ‘I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.’ [i]

From time to time we all feel like withdrawing into our shell.  We’d all like the world to go away. But today’s pandemic is a good reminder that we’re not meant to live in isolation; we’re all much too interconnected. We need each other, and when we’re separated, we become unhappy.

When God created mankind, he said ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ (Gen.2:18).  So, he gave Adam a wife, they had a family and we’ve been living in community ever since. Or at least, we’re meant to be living in community.

The famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon once visited a man who had isolated himself from his church community. Spurgeon walked into the man’s home without saying a word, and sat with him by his fireplace. The man felt uncomfortable. With some tongs, Spurgeon took a lump of coal from the fire and set it on a brick. Both men stared at that solitary coal as it dimmed and cooled. Spurgeon then stood up, and as he opened the door to leave, the man said, ‘I understand pastor; I’ll see you next Sunday’.

Living with others isn’t always easy. Tension and conflict so easily arise, especially when someone does something wrong. But as Christians, we have a duty to look out for others, even when they disappoint us. That’s the message from today’s readings, which give us three ways to respond when we find ourselves in conflict with someone.

These three ways are speaking, respecting and healing. [ii]

In our first reading, God asks the prophet Ezekiel to watch over his people in Jerusalem.  His job is to protect the people by speaking up if they do anything wrong or if they put themselves in danger.

That’s what we are asked to do.  As Christians, we all have a duty to speak up if someone’s doing something wrong. It’s not essential to change their behaviour, but we must speak the truth to those we care about.  Otherwise our silence can be taken as tacit approval and we become partly responsible for their mistake.

But speaking up can be hard, so St Paul in our second reading reminds us to always respect others. Referring to the Ten Commandments, he says it’s important to respect the other person’s life, marriage, property and integrity.

Indeed, seven of the Ten Commandments are about our connection with others, and they can all be summed up in one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. If we really love and respect our neighbour, we wouldn’t harm them at all and they’d be much more likely to stay in contact with us.

And finally, in our gospel, Jesus says that before talking make sure you have a humble, compassionate and forgiving heart. These are important factors in healing relationships.

Then go and talk openly and honestly with the person who has hurt you, he says, but do it privately, to avoid any embarrassment. If that doesn’t work, invite one or two others into the conversation, not to gang up on them, but to help them reconnect. And if necessary, invite someone else, perhaps a mediator, to resolve the situation.

But whatever happens, Jesus says, always pray for reconciliation and keep the doors of communication open, because we all need healing. 

In his book, The Great Divorce, CS Lewis describes hell as a huge, dark place, where there’s no contact between people.  Hell started out small, he says, but people quarreled with one another and split apart. Then there were other squabbles and people moved even further away, until no-one could even see anyone else.  And there they lived, alone in the darkness.  Jesus wants us to avoid this hell. [iii]

When we realise just how flawed and broken we all are, it becomes much easier to understand that we all have the same basic need for healing and wholeness.

We are not solitary rocks or islands. As the poet John Donne wrote: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. [iv] We’re all meant to live and grow and thrive together, in our families and communities.

Christian love isn’t an emotion or a feeling; it’s a responsibility and a decision.

If ever you’re in conflict, remember the value of speaking, respecting and healing.


[ii] S Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire, Cycle A.  St Paul’s, New York. 2018:121-123.

[iii] CS Lewis, The Great Divorce.