God’s ways are not our ways. We are challenged with this truth all the time.
God’s ways are not our ways. We are challenged with this truth all the time. As great as human reason is, it is nothing in comparison to the wisdom to God. The most generous and loving among us are mere shadows of the generosity and the love of God. This parable is yet another proof of that truth.
ʺThe Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out at about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ʺ (Mt. 20: 1-4) We know that the landowner goes out three more times and hires workers he finds in the marketplace each time. When evening comes he pays them all, the last to be hired first and so on, paying the first to be hired, those who had labored and sweated under the hot sun all day, last. Those who had worked all day believed, in the logic of the world that they would, of course, be paid more than those who were hired at the end of the day and only labored for an hour. This was not the case. They found that they were paid the same amount in wages as those who were hired last and only worked an hour. And they complained, considering the landowner’s behavior unjust.
Does this not sound familiar? You can hear the union members among us protesting this obvious, material, wage injustice. ʺWho does this owner think he is?ʺ The landowner (who is the metaphorical stand in for Jesus) challenges one of them, saying, ʺMy friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my money? Are you envious because I am generous?ʺ (Mt. 20: 13-15)
Here, then, is the heart of the passage. Like all good parables, this is an allegory, meaning it has more than just one level of meaning. There is the surface level, the level of the material world, where a thing has value, or is judged by means of material measurements, like money and time worked, under such and such conditions, and so on. Even at this level, the complaints of the last paid workers, those who had worked all day, would not ʺstand up in courtʺ as they had agreed to a specific contract with the owner. Even in the material world one must honor a duly constituted contract. Unless, of course, one gets a clever lawyer, right? In the material sense, one might naturally feel sympathetic with the laborers’ disappointment and their perceived sense of injustice.
But there is another level of meaning here. Jesus is not talking about mere material things. The time spent in the day’s labors in the vineyard, is a metaphor for when one enters the ‘vineyard’ of faith. It matters not when one comes to it, God will treat all who have come to the faith with a sincere heart equally, whether they have lived it their whole lives, or whether one has only just come to it on one’s death bed. The ‘landowner’ (God) will give both the same ʺamountʺ of his infinite love. The ‘money’ is a metaphor for Christ’s grace, mercy and love. He is free to do with it what he wishes. And we Christians understand that he wishes to love us all equally, to forgive us all equally, to welcome us all equally into his presence. He does not measure in the ways that we do.
While we measure by limitations, determining an individual’s value by finite measures like time worked, rank and status, compensating the individual according to those finite and limited measures, Christ gives his grace, love, and mercy wholly, freely, and equally to all, without the prejudices of material measures. For Christ (the landowner), it does not matter when we came to the faith, only that we have come. Though he came for all, he did not take away our freedom to accept or to reject his freely given and generous offer. He leaves us free to say yay, or nay. Because of this, his joy is unbounded when we finally say yay. He will not limit his ʺpaymentʺ of love, mercy and grace to those who enter the vineyard (the faith), no matter how soon or how late. There is no jealousy toward God’s generosity in the Christian believer. Even if it is beyond our ken, we humbly accept that fact that God’s ways are not our ways. More than that, we believe, whether we understand it with human reason or not, that his ways are best, indeed, perfect, in comparison to ours.
Thank God that his wisdom, grace, mercy, and love are not limited by the measurements of the world. Jesus, give us the grace to enter the vineyard of faith and to joyfully attend to its many labors trusting in your infinite generosity of mercy and love. Amen.
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