A young man felt called to be a priest, and was in formation with a religious order. As time passed, his vision changed however. It was no longer about ministering to the people whom his order served. He was lost in a fantasy of what it would be like to be a priest, and bought clerical shirts to play dress-up. He said he possessed generosity, yet was rather selfish. What happened to this man? His calling to the priesthood was questioned and eventually was asked to leave the order.
In the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel tells the people that the Lord says, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who are pasturing themselves. Should not shepherds, rather, pasture their sheep? (34:2-3) The shepherds attended to their own needs by benefitting from what the sheep provide yet are not responsible in caring for the sheep. The sheep are scattered rather than in a flock to be eaten by beasts. (34-5) The Lord says that since the shepherds have been irresponsible for not tending their sheep he will tend the sheep. “For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among scattered sheep, so will I find my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark. (34:11-12).
This Scripture passage is a parable fore-telling of what was to come: Jesus being born into this world to save people who were lost. The people are the sheep, and the shepherds are the religious leaders who had been more concerned about their status rather than helping the people foster a relationship with God.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus shares a parable with his disciples about how the kingdom of heaven is like a vineyard. This vineyard is tended by laborers hired by a landowner who pays each laborer a usual daily wage which he believes is just. “You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.” (20-4) The landowner hired laborers five times throughout the day, and each laborer received the usual daily wage. The last group of laborers only worked an hour because nobody had hired them until the vineyard landowner saw them. Not every laborer was happy about this because the laborers assumed the wage would be according to the amount of time worked. “And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat. (20:11-12) The landowner retorted their grumbling by saying, “Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. (20:13-14) He later continues with, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (20:15) After telling the parable, Jesus says, “Thus, the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” (20:16)
This is where I often hear the “It’s not fair!” homily introduction. The priest tries to explain to the folks sitting in the pews that life is not always fair, especially to the children. Then the priest goes onto shame the wealthy in the world who don’t help the poor. The message is not about what is fair and what is not. It is not about receiving reward for what you do.
So what are these stories speaking to sheep and labor all about??? These stories are about commitment and responsibility to what is yours, and what you do with it. The shepherds in the first reading were not committed to what God had provided to them. They only reaped the benefits of what was given without any care to the sheep. On the other hand, the landowner of the vineyard took care of his vineyard, even though it was by laborers. The landowner was generous enough to treat each laborer equally no matter how long the laborer worked, and because of that he put the laborers before himself.
How does this apply to us as clergy and folks in ministry? We are not to become that young man who was asked to leave his order due to his irresponsibility! After all, it is so easy to turn on TV and watch our favorite program, wasting time, and yet to not take the time to pray in order to be spiritually grounded. We may take too much “me time” which may be avoidance of our responsibilities. There might be a person at our place of ministry who rubs us the wrong way so we do not interact with them as we do with others. Instead of avoiding that person, we need to recognize they are a child of God and love them. We should make that effort to reach out, not with hopes we can change them, but rather let them know we care about them. We may become complacent in ministry and choose not to grow in our ministry. In this case, we need to pray about whether it is time to enhance what we do, or find another ministry to which we are called.
It is our responsibility to be committed to our ministries on an emotional and spiritual level. Work without prayer will not help in any ministry. Work without love will not help in any ministry. That man I spoke about who was more concerned about the priesthood went to Morning and Evening Prayer every day, only going through the motions. Going through the motions wasn’t feeding his spiritual life. There is a Christian music artist who has a song titled, “The Motions” and there is a phrase in which asks, “What if I had given everything?” Giving everything fulfills that emotional and spiritual need.
We are called to love others and treat each other with respect and dignity. If we see someone out in the fray and lost, we need to reach out to them so they know God’s love. If we do not know, or understand their situation, we need to ask in order to be able to help them, or to at least understand what they are doing. As Christians, we need to forget about the titles, forget about the superficial, and to place ourselves in the position of acting with love. We need to tend our sheep, and to make sure our vineyards are in good shape. So, I ask, where are your sheep? In what state are your vineyards?
Father God, make us ever diligent in our work in your vineyards and ever mindful as we tend your sheep. Amen.