by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“My thoughts,” says the Lord, “are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours.”
Isaiah 55, 6-9
“I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?”
Matthew 20, 1-16
Those reading the parable in today’s gospel from the perspective of employers of day-labourers would be shaking their heads in disbelief at the vineyard owner’s excessive generosity, and wondering if they would ever find willing day-labourers again. But this parable is about something very different from economics and labour markets. If we read the parable closely, we come to realise that it is not as silly as it sounds, and that it is a variation on the theme that runs through the parables of the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, the Guests Invited to the Wedding, and the Lost Coin. The vineyard in today’s parable represents the kingdom of God, where God’s love is limitless and where “comfortable expectations are withdrawn, and the unexpected prevails.” (Rod Doyle cfc) This vineyard is renowned for its owner’s generosity, boundless love and mercy, paralleling the qualities found in the father who waits for his lost son and the king who invites to the wedding feast all manner of peasant workers. In the parable of the wealthy vineyard owner Jesus invited those who were engaged first to understand something of the world into which they were invited and to imitate him in inviting into their lives the last and the least – the poor, the sick, the latecomers, the disregarded – instead of comparing and complaining.
All of the parables referred to above reveal a God who approaches us in gentleness, mercy and love – a far cry from the God we were once told is out to judge us harshly for our failings. Kings and potentates in the time of Jesus were no more into forgiving heavy debts than Visa Card would be into cancelling thousands of dollars of spending on our credit cards. Nor would any sensible shepherd risk exposing a whole flock to marauding wolves while he went searching for one stray sheep. And no woman with any degree of common sense would clean the whole house searching for an almost worthless coin. Neither would a first-century father run to meet his wayward son, forgive him for his debauchery, and then throw a party to celebrate his home-coming. He would be more inclined to put him on probation until he demonstrated that he really had turned his life around.
We can empathise with the workers of today’s parable, who, after toiling all day under a hot sun, feel aggrieved when they discover that those who turned up for only an hour in the late afternoon receive the same pay. And as if to rub salt into their wounds, the vineyard owner instructed his foreman to pay the late-comers first, and exactly the same amount as every other worker. The vineyard owner then told the complainants and whingers that what he did with his money was none of their business.
But stop and ponder for a moment the thread that runs through all the parables to which I have referred. The workers who were engaged late, the servant whose huge debt was forgiven (last week’s gospel), the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son are all the same character. Through all these parables Jesus proclaimed that, as far as God is concerned, everyone is dear to God, no matter who they are or what they have done. All fringe-dwellers, the marginalized and the alienated, those crippled by debt or laziness, the lost and the late-comers are offered welcome, kindness, forgiveness and mercy. And they don’t have to earn it. But they do have to accept it.
It’s worth noting also that the prodigal son’s elder brother and the grumbling workers of today’s parable are similar characters in that they are all envious. They are unable to be satisfied or even delighted with what they have. They are driven to look at the good fortune of others and feel as if they have been cheated. A sense of entitlement takes over.
But look at today’s parable as a kind of allegory. Think of the agreed daily wage as God’s forgiveness, acceptance and love. They can’t be earned. They are not a reward for effort. It makes no sense to think that God’s grace, love and forgiveness can be halved or multiplied or distributed in different amounts. God’s forgiveness is forgiveness and God’s love is love, complete, entire and boundless. Yet somehow we allow envy to trap us into thinking that we can get more of something that is already perfect. We end up not being able to enjoy what we have been given because envy makes us fear that somebody else might have been given something better.
So the real point of this challenging parable is that the vineyard owner (God) does not favour some workers over others but that he wants to give the same to everybody, the same to first and last alike. God gives to everyone of us according to our needs, and there is not one of us who is not in need of God’s love and forgiveness. Let’s dismiss, once and for all, that God’s love and forgiveness are distributed to each of us on the basis of merit.