by Br Ian McDonald cfc
“Let the wicked abandon their way of life, and the evil their way of thinking. Let them come back to God, who is merciful and lavish with forgiveness. ‘I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work – it is God who speaks.’” Isaiah 55: 6-9
“The men who came last”, the disgruntled workers said, “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” The landowner answered them: “My friend, I’m not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius?. . . Why be envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20: 1-16
In today’s first reading, Isaiah reminds us that God’s way of thinking and acting is very different from the way in which we think and act. That makes the first reading a very appropriate introduction to today’s gospel parable in which we are told of a landowner whose generosity seems utterly illogical. In telling the parable, Jesus used the landowner to represent God. Yet, in reality, even if in theory we believe that God thinks and acts very differently from the way we do, I suspect that we expect God to somehow be an extension of us human beings, to behave in the way in which we want God to behave.
I am not for one moment suggesting that we start praying differently. We surely need to pray like the human beings we are. Nor do I want to suggest that, in our prayer, we might look at ways of outsmarting God. What I am saying is that, when God does not deliver on our requests exactly as we would like, we allow God to be God.
With these thoughts, we might be able to venture into a close exploration of today’s gospel-reading. Matthew introduced this reading by announcing that Jesus was about to tell a parable about the kingdom of heaven or the reign of God. At the outset, we have to remind ourselves that all reigns and kingdoms involve power, authority and politics. Power, authority and politics are forces that still operate in the Christian community to which we now refer as the “people of God”. They have to be used with sensitivity and justice.
Today’s parable is a puzzling one simply because it raises questions about fairness in the world of employment and labour markets. If a modern-day landowner were to behave like the landowner in the parable modern-day union leaders would launch into litigation without hesitation. For as long as paid employment and the hiring of day-labourers have been in practice, people have been taught to engage in competition with fellow workers in order to win employment and promotion. Moreover, in the arena of religion, generation after generation has somehow subscribed to the belief that God’s favour is meant to be earned by one’s personal effort.
It’s important also for us to note, in this context, that the Jewish people firmly believed that, when the Messiah finally arrived, their nation would become renowned for its adherence to and promotion of justice. The Jewish word shalom embodied the notions of justice, peace, holiness, welcome and courageous support of community. The Jews believed that the advent of the Messiah among them would lead to their becoming not only a model of justice but the envy of and inspiration to neighbouring peoples.
This parable, however, with its extravagant depiction of the boundlessness of God’s beneficence and love would have sent shockwaves through Jesus’ audience because of the perceptions of unfairness which it evoked. It is a parable that has also troubled Christians for no other reason than the fact that Christianity has inherited its understanding and practice of justice from Judaism. The way in which the landowner in the parable remunerated all the workers he hired without considering the hours they had invested in their labour raises questions about both justice and mercy.
Let’s for a moment consider how we would like God to treat us at the wash-up at the end of our lives. Would I prefer God to treat me with mercy or justice. Without hesitation, I would opt for God’s mercy for me and God’s justice for everybody else. On reflection, I think that reflex option comes from the reality that I and nearly all of my sisters and brothers in the Christian community have learned to compete with those around me in almost everything I do. Yet, in this parable, Jesus taught that there is no place and no need for anyone to compete in order to win God’s favour. God’s love is for all – free, gratis and without cost.
If we want to examine this parable through the prism of logic or sound strategy, we could reason that the landowner might have saved himself a whole heap of criticism and ill-feeling had he decided to put at the top of the wages-line the labourers who had worked all day long in the heat. He could then have paid them first and sent them on their way. But Jesus was/is not about keeping up appearances. Moreover, if the landowner in the parable had behaved like that, Jesus would not have had a parable that would shake-up his listeners.
This landowner was so intent on hiring day-labourers that the amount of work they did seemed to be almost irrelevant. He was intent on making sure that needy men would be able to keep themselves and their families fed and watered. Social justice was clearly high on his list of priorities.
This parable sits comfortably beside all of Jesus’ other far-fetched parables – the Prodigal Son, the unforgiving servant, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the Good Samaritan. They all reveal to us a God who regards us as priceless, despite our history of infidelity and failure. No first-century millionaire would have cancelled an unpayable debt any more than Mastercard, these days, would waive a debt of thousands of dollars on our credit card. No sensible housewife would turn her house upside down searching for a ten-cent coin. No sheep farmer would put ninety-nine sheep at the risk of being ripped to pieces by wolves as he went looking for one stray. No normal father would throw a welcome-home party for a son who had abandoned and disgraced him without at least putting the lad on probation. No workers who had laboured all day in the heat would feel that they hadn’t been cheated when those who had started an hour before knock-off time received the same pay. No Samaritan would go to the aid of a bashed and robbed Jew who, like all his countrymen, treated Samaritans like dirt. These are all parables that point to a God of boundless love and mercy who brushes aside all the expectations we want to attribute to God without so much as a second thought. If we could only admit our difficulty in imagining that the God who loved us into life could love us as these parables demonstrate, then we might hear Isaiah from the sidelines congratulating us with: “Yes, you’re right! God really does think and act differently from the way you expect.”