25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
NOT a few people who read today’s parable of The Generous Vineyard Owner mumble to themselves, “Unfair.” The generosity of the vineyard owner is paying all the workers the same pay despite differing hours at work. At first glance, it seems that the complaint of the men who were hired early in the day is valid. They had worked for about ten hours, from dawn till dusk. They were amazed when the men who were hired in the afternoon and worked only three or four hours were paid the same wage as they were. After a moment of thought, however, it becomes easier to see why their gripe was not valid. They were paid exactly what they had been promised. Why should they be jealous if the owner of the vineyard chose to be more generous to other needy workers?
Certainly, it is a very subversive parable. By human standards, the actions of the landowner do not make sense. Surely such behavior today on the part of management would result in charges of unfairness and strikes on the part of workers. Hardly any other parable seems to upset the basic structure of an orderly society as does this one. Our society holds that “the more you do the more you should receive.” Work and effort are translated into expectations of reward. Without this, the whole system would crumbles. If everyone gets the same, then everyone will perform at the lowest output possible. All of this is impractical and even destructive of character.
But really this parable of Jesus is not about how to compensate human work in this world, but about how to respond to God’s work there; it is about getting, not what we deserve, but more than we deserve, from God. The parable is meant to shock our too neat views of reward and worth; to challenge the “more effort-more recompense” concept in religion. Applied to God, such an idea may result in the opinion that God owes us salvation after we have done our “good works.”
But God does not work on the merit system. His ways are not our ways and his standards are not our standards. This parable challenges our religious views of merit and reward. We are cautioned about equating effort with merit. We can’t come to stand before God and demand our just wage based on what we have accomplished. God does not owe us heaven! God does not owe salvation to anyone. It is a generous free gift. His gifts are “free,” unmerited by human labor. God saves us not because of our personal merit, but because of His surpassing love.
Today’s parable wants to show that God is not an employer like employers on earth, who have obligations of justice toward their workers. God has no such obligation toward men for his justice transcends human justice. Here justice is limited by what is due. To a day’s work corresponds a day’s living wage. But beyond justice there is goodness, which has no limits except the limits of the possibilities of the giver. God’s goodness is infinite; its possibilities are infinite. God’s goodness goes infinitely beyond what man can merit. His generosity is extended to everybody, even to sinners and Gentiles. God’s generosity should cause rejoicing, not envy.
What would be our daily wage, if we were to translate this parable into the reality of our spiritual life? Jesus himself… wholly, fully, to each of us, no matter what we do so long as we do it for him. St Paul praises “fruitful labor”; he even boasted of his own. But there is never any doubt where the meaning of it all is to be found: “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain”. There is no life apart from Jesus. Jesus is the image of God par excellence, the image, therefore, of God’s generosity. Jesus is God’s generosity for us.