Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20C-24, 27A; M 20:1-16A
Fernando Armellini SCJ
In the parable, the master provokes the anger of the workers of the first hour, who cannot even hold up for fatigue, are forced to witness an irritating scene of paying to the idlers the same wages that they were promised. It is in this surprising and disconcerting behavior of the master that the message of the parable is perceived. Let us analyze it deeper.
With the workers of the first hour he had agreed a silver coin, with others what will be just, with the last he had not agreed anything. What did the boss mean by just? The workers understood him according to their criteria of judgment. They were convinced that he would take account of the merits. The owner instead follows his own justice and distributes his goods in a completely free and open way. He did not wrong anyone; he just decided not to consider the merits. He gave everyone according to their needs and, of course, the first to be benefited were the last, the most poor (v. 16). That’s the surprise of God; that is his strange way of conceiving and practicing justice.
The parable is the clearest and provocative denouncement that can be imagined of the religion of merits taught by the spiritual guides of Israel. The rabbis taught: “He who fulfills a precept acquires for himself a lawyer, who commits a transgression acquires for himself a prosecutor. All God’s judgments are based on measure for measure.” They completed their catechesis talking about books kept in heaven, on which the meritorious deeds and transgressions were carefully noted.
With his parable, Jesus destroyed, forever, this self-righteous way of relating to God. The love of the Lord is never bought, conquered or assessed based on good works. It is received freely and in proportion to the need. God has filled the hungry with good things, but he sent the rich away empty (Lk 1:53).
Many “just ones” feel an unacknowledged envy against one who, being converted at the last moment, had the good fortune to “work less”, to enjoy life more.
Ultimately in the Christian community, no one can think of oneself being superior to others, because no one can consider oneself a veteran because he got converted first, because he practices the gospel more faithfully. No one is master of the “vineyard”; all are workers, all are brothers and sisters.
God’s Way or My Way?
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is.55:8).
When our thoughts and God’s are not in alignment, we often find ourselves arguing with him, the way the vineyard labourers argued with the landowner in Jesus’ parable. The first labourers believed they should be given more than the usual daily wage just because the workers who came late had been given that amount, forgetting conveniently that usual daily wage was what the landowner had promised them before they started. There was no ground for their dispute since the landowner didn’t break his promise.
To think about it, the real reason for the grumbling labourers’ complaint can only be jealousy. But if the landowner wanted to be generous with his own money, why would these jealous labourers think they had the right to dispute his generosity? Actually the landowner character in Jesus’ parable is an image of God, who is free to bestow his graces as he pleases; and often does so out of mercy and compassion. After all, grace is God’s gift of love. It’s free; it cannot be earned by human works. To say that one’s “effort” deserves more grace from God is in itself a presumptuous claim that reveals a heart pregnant with pride and self-righteousness.
Like the jealous labourers who grumbled against the landowner based on a faulty understanding of fairness, people often think God is unfair in dealing with them. Is it any surprise that people with such a mindset often find God remote and unreachable? In the Responsorial Psalm, we are reminded that we should “praise [God’s] name forever and ever” because he is “gracious and merciful”, “kind”, “compassionate”, “just”, and “holy”. Indeed if we would only heed the psalmist’s reminder of God’s exemplary virtues and bring our ways in alignment with his, we would find that whatever distance separating us from him will disappear quickly, for “the Lord is near to all who call upon him”. Given time, our trivial and mindless grumbles against God because of our own blindness to the truth will stop. Only then will peace and harmony in our relationship with God prevail.