Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 21, 2014
When Jesus teaches through parables, he expresses profound truths with simple stories and images that engage minds and hearts. In the Old Testament, the use of parables reflects an ancient, culturally universal method of teaching an ethical lesson applicable to everyday life, by using symbolic stories with concrete characters and actions. Most of the time, the original audience that first heard these stories was left to draw their own conclusions. Other times, the evangelists provided an explanation of Jesus’ story. Often the indirectness of parables makes the wisdom of Jesus inaccessible to hostile literalists.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard in today’s Gospel (Matthew 20:1-16) serves as a corrective to false notions of entitlement and merit. The story reflects the socio-economic background of Palestine at the time of Jesus. The parable is offensive to us and it challenges our sense of justice. In order to grasp the full impact of the story, it is essential to understand the sequence of events in the parable. The householder hires labourers for his vineyard about 6:00 a.m. for a denarius, which would be considered a fair day’s wage. We are already given a hint of the householder’s generosity as he engages labourers at varying hours during the day. Could it be that the householder has a compassionate concern for the unemployed and their families as opposed to actually needing them for the harvest? The question is open-ended.
The workers who were hired first appeal to common sense, equitable treatment, logic, and reason. Their complaint is not necessarily that the last hired received a payment, but that if the householder was so generous with the last, then certainly he might provide them with a “bonus” for having endured the heat of the whole day. Some interpreters have attempted to minimize this breach of fairness by explaining that perhaps the quality of work done by the late-comers during the last hour was equivalent to the work done the entire day by the others. Certain others use the rationale that a contract is indeed a contract, and therefore the labourers hired at the beginning of the day have no reason whatsoever to argue about the wages due to them. The fact of the matter is that from the purely human, logical point of view, they had reason to complain. However, this parable is not about ethical and fair labour management, but rather about the radical nature of God’s generosity, compassion, and the in-breaking Kingdom.
The radical moment of the parable (as indicated by 19:30 and 20:16) is noted in 20:8-9 as those who were employed not only receive payment in reverse order, but also receive equal payment for their efforts! The parable reaches its crescendo in verse 15 with the question: “Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” The owner of the vineyard reserves the right to pay his employees not on the basis of their own merits but rather on the basis of his own compassion.
Generosity condemned as injustice
In today’s parable, why should such generosity be condemned as injustice? This idea finds its roots and deepest meaning in the Old Testament understanding of God the Creator who is good and generous to all who turn to him. This is the God in whom Jesus believed and lived, but in the person of Jesus, the divine compassion, mercy, and goodness surpass the divine justice. Therefore all who follow Jesus as his disciples and friends much imitate this extraordinary compassion and lavish generosity and never question, deny, or begrudge it.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ reveals his identity to us in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
We are like the eleventh-hour workers
Perhaps many of us feel strongly with the disgruntled workers of verse 12. How often have we known whimsical employers who have compensated lazy or problematic workers far too generously, rather than acknowledging the faithful, dedicated, day-in day-out workers. We may ask ourselves: How can God be so unfair? How can God overlook his most faithful workers? Underneath this parable is the issue of bargaining with God. From the very beginnings of religion it has been assumed that we mortals can bargain with the gods to obtain from them what we want.
How many times have we experienced this in our belonging to and service in the Church? Some may grumble and claim that their long, dedicated, tireless service qualifies them instantly for higher pay, higher rank, and greater privilege and prestige. It is precisely at moments like this that we must humbly acknowledge that we are like those eleventh-hour workers. Not one of us deserves the blessings that God has prepared for us. Our grumbling and lateral gazing often leads to serious resentments that are hard to shake off. All our good works give us no claim upon God. How much less do we have the right to demand, even if we have done everything we ought to do, that we should be honoured and rewarded by God in a special manner as if we were such meritorious, indispensable persons in his service? The word “entitlement” does not exist in the vocabulary of the Kingdom of God.
The only remedy to such sentiments is to look upon the merciful face of Jesus and thus recognize God’s lavish generosity in the flesh. Human logic is limited, but the mercy and grace of God know no limits or boundaries. God doesn’t act by our standards. This means that we must see and accept God in our sister and brother, just as God has wished them to be. When God chooses a person, granting him/her particular graces, blessings, or gifts, God does not reject the other person nor deprive him/her of his grace. God’s graces and blessings are boundless, and each person receives his or her own share. God’s choice of a person or people should not be a cause of pride for those chosen, or of rejection for those not chosen. It is only when both parties live in humility and simplicity, and recognize together a God of love and mercy at work in their lives that they will begin to learn the real meaning of love and justice, and finally come to reconciliation and deep, mutual understanding.
For your reflection
In the New Testament, Jesus teaches us that we must overcome jealousy and envy. This is brought out in today’s parable of the labourers who come to work at different times of the day, but receive the same salary nevertheless. Those who came at the first hour grumbled against the landowner. “He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you… Are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:13-15)
Consider these two sections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2552-2553):
The tenth commandment forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power.
Envy is sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to have them for oneself. It is a capital sin.
Envy is that fault in the human character that cannot recognize the beauty and uniqueness of the other, and denies them honour. In order to approach God, who is total goodness, beauty, and generosity, this attitude must be broken from within. Envy can no longer see. Our eyes remain nailed shut. Envy and avarice are sins against the tenth commandment. What can we do to move beyond this blindness and hardness of heart?
Caritas in Veritate
In light of today’s Gospel about compensation, I offer you section #63 of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate “On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth”:
No consideration of the problems associated with development could fail to highlight the direct link between poverty and unemployment. In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or “because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.” For this reason, on 1 May 2000 on the occasion of the Jubilee of Workers, my venerable predecessor Pope John Paul II issued an appeal for “a global coalition in favour of ‘decent work,’” supporting the strategy of the International Labour Organization. In this way, he gave a strong moral impetus to this objective, seeing it as an aspiration of families in every country of the world. What is meant by the word “decent” in regard to work? It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.