For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.
The parable we just listened to in today’s Gospel has always been a diffi-cult one for Christians to grasp. It is difficult for us to understand because the way the owner of the vineyard pays his workers perhaps does not seem fair, by our standards of economic fairness. In order to better understand the teaching of the parable, we have to begin with the truth stated by Isaiah in the first reading, that God’s way of thinking and acting is not ours, that it is as far beyond our way of thinking as the distance between heaven and earth. Unless we keep that profound truth in mind, we will cut ourselves off from what Jesus is really trying to teach us in this parable or others.
So let us begin with the root of our problem in grasping the teaching of this parable: we get stuck immediately on what may seem a question of eco-nomic justice or injustice, the matter of paying everyone the same for differ-ent amounts of work. However, the parable is not about economics, but about salvation. The parable is really about the way God saves us and the way God rewards us for our efforts in the Kingdom of God.
The image of the vineyard can be found in various teachings of Jesus, and it is identified with the Kingdom of God, the Church, the place of salvation. The owner is God, and we are those looking for work, for salvation, found in the vineyard. The first thing to be grasped is that the Owner, God, has no ob-ligation to let any of us into His vineyard. So whether we are allowed into the vineyard early or late, young or old, the fact that we are there at all is a pure gift from the owner. That is the first Grace as theologians define it, the grace of justification whereby we are brought into the vineyard to work for its fruitfulness. It might be seen as the image of the Sacrament of Baptism, the pure gift of our generous God who brings us into His kingdom through merits of our own, but by his pure generosity. We enter to go to work, for the Kingdom, and whether our work (our lifelong work) is long – all day or half a day as in the parable – or brief, the final hour, the reward, the good that we will receive from the owner, will be great.
However, notice what the first good we receive really is – that first good is simply the opportunity to enter the Vineyard and go to work, and that gift, that good, salvation. is the same for all, whether they come early or late to the Vineyard. There is no greater or lesser good of salvation itself. What greater good can there be for us than to be in the Vineyard, in God’s King-dom, with God.
But then we see the second good which is simultaneously a gift and a re-ward, a gift because it follows upon the prior gift of salvation, our being brought into the vineyard, the Kingdom of God, and a reward because we work to earn it. And this is where the problem really gets difficult for under-standing the meaning of the parable. It seems that God gives everybody who works in the vineyard the same reward, the same goods, no matter how long they’ve worked. That is what strikes our way of thinking about fairness as something unfair. Why do the last guys who worked but an hour get as much as those who worked all day? This does not see fair, at first sight at least.
But let us look closer. Even in terms of justice, earthly justice, is there an-ything unjust that the owner has done in giving the last the same as the first. How can there be injustice when the owner gives the first workers what they agreed on, the just wage for a day’s work. He in fact says to those at noon “I will give you what is just.” So he is a just man. The workers do not dispute
this fact. So when he gives the later hired workers the same as the first, he is not committing an injustice on anyone. He is paying the first workers what they agreed to as a just wage. He is giving the others more than justice de-mands, he is giving them a gift of mercy that goes beyond justice. They needed a day’s wages to feed their families that day, like the first hired. So he gave them what justice demands, an hour’s pay, and what his mercy in-spires, the other hours’ wages as a gift to feed their families. The first work-ers grumble because they think the owner should give them more than a just wage, simply because he gives more than a just wage to the later hired work-ers. The owner sets them straight at the end: “Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
But again this is not a parable about economic justice. It has to do with God’s salvation, how Salvation takes place. We have already seen that eve-ryone is equally treated when it comes to the first grace, the grace of justifi-cation, for none us can earn that salvation. Salvation begins by our being transplanted from the world of sin and death to the new world of God’s Kingdom, the Vineyard in the parable. None of has a right to enter the King-dom, to be made one of God’s children. The grace of justification is the same for all of us, that free conversion from a child of this world to a child of God. It’s like getting pregnant, every woman is equally pregnant in the first mo-ment – none is just a little pregnant and none are more pregnant.
But the parable goes further. We are transferred by God’s Grace into the Vineyard to work, to work for the Kingdom of God and its growth. And for that work we will be rewarded. However, it’s never a reward based purely on some kind of human justice. We always get more than we deserve for our work, whether we come in first or last. God is generous with his goods just like the owner in the parable, but even more so. If we are humble enough to follow Jesus’ teaching here, then we will get closer to the mystery of God’s generosity truth by reflecting in faith upon this parable.
Two truths come into play here. First God is never unjust because God’s mercy always goes beyond, gives more than justice alone would demand. So if God gave more reward to the last workers than the first, that is due to his mercy and generosity. After all God has given far more grace to Mary right from the first moment of her conception; he not only gave her the grace of adoption, but God also gave her tremendous endowments of further graces along with the grace of adoption, and this before she ever did any work in the vineyard. Jesus taught us that God always gives us more than we de-serve, much more, and in Mary’s case even more than the highest angels. Are we envious because God was more generous to Mary than to us?
But there is a second truth that can come into play here that is more along the lines of justice. In the Kingdom, it’s not simply the hours we work that are rewarded, but the intensity of our work, the devotion and love that moti-vates it. Martyrs who may have entered the Church, the Kingdom, the vi-neyard, just briefly before their martyrdom surely merit a greater reward than those who enter the Kingdom as infants but live lives that are barely commit-ted to the Kingdom, what Jesus calls tepid or lukewarm Christian lives, but nonetheless Christian lives. They live and die Christians, but is their reward in Heaven, the degree of their happiness, their blessedness to be that of the Martyrs?
The Christian life can be perfected, lived to the greatest intensity in a brief time. Child saints and the martyr who dies for Christ scarcely after Baptism are examples. But we have examples in this world also. Soldiers, who might have served only briefly, but who sacrificed their lives by a heroic deed are examples of this truth. They lived more perfectly what it means not simply to be a great soldier, but a great man, as Jesus taught when he said that no greater love than that one lays down one’s life for one’s friends. That is why we honor such soldiers as heroes, as the kind of people that allow us to see what man is really capable of when motivated by love, what can be at his best.
So too in the parable, the last workers might have come first because they worked with greater love, greater intensity, greater generosity. And the own-er will not be outdone in generosity. That offers great hope to those who find the Kingdom later in life, who begin their work day late in life. The life of a child of God is not measured ultimately by its duration, but by its intensity of faith, hope, love, of all the virtues of God’s only Son.
So whether a man is given that supreme grace of adoption by God early or late, whether he is the first Adam or the last man on this earth, it is all in the end a matter of our being the beneficiary of God’s grace, and of course the way we make use of the gifts that God has poured out on us to help us work for the Kingdom with all our heart, mind and strength. The key to avoiding being envious of the generosity of God toward others, then, is to keep our at-tention fixed not on what God does for others, but on God, and on what true marvels he has done for each of us. In relation to salvation, we are all beg-gars really, because nothing we can do can earn that first and greatest of all goods which is communion with our God and undeserved membership in his household. Moreover, everything else we do is based on that gift, including whatever merits we may acquire in God’s service. As St. Augustine once wrote, in the end, everything is grace.
Praised be Jesus Christ.