GOD’S EXTRAVAGANT GENEROSITY
Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-24,27; Matt 20:1-16a
Today, in the first reading, we are reminded by the Prophet Isaiah that our ways are not God’s ways. The ways and thoughts of God are far higher than ours, just as “the heavens are high above the earth”. In spite of all the advances of modern science, the ways of God are still as distant as ever. In fact, the most advanced scientific instruments are a waste in trying to understand God. The prophet quotes God as saying to the human race: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). This truth is illustrated by the parable of the vineyard workers, as found in the Gospel reading of today.
1. THE PARABLE
At dawn and throughout the day, an owner of a vineyard hires workers. They reach an agreement about wages; and the workers go out into the vineyard to do the work. About five o’clock in the evening, merely one hour before the end of the workday, the owner hires the last workers. Those hired last were paid first. They received a denarius, a full-day’s pay. The people who had worked three hours also received a denarius as did those who worked six hours. The men who worked all day believe they were going to get a bonus. If those who worked less time than they did received a denarius, then they should get more than that! But, to their shock, they are given the same amount that the late arrivals received. They grumble bitterly. The owner of the vineyard responds: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
If Jesus were telling this parable for the first time in today’s media, there would most likely be demonstrations in the streets, organized by labour unionists. Of all the forty parables of Jesus, this one seems to be the most puzzling. It is found only in Matthew. According to one biblical scholar (William Barclay), the situation that Jesus is describing in this parable is the kind of thing that frequently happened in Palestine. At the end of September, the grape harvest would ripen just ahead of the rainy season. If the grapes were not harvested before the rain, they would be ruined. Therefore, with rain storms coming, and in a frantic effort to save the grapes, the owners of vineyards would go out and draft day-labourers looking for work. They would get as many as they could gather even if these employees were to work only for an hour before the close of the day.
It is customary that people who work longer hours should earn more than those who work shorter hours. But Jesus breaks away from that convention. Our sense of justice seems to favour the labourers who worked all day and expected a wage greater than that given to the latecomers. In the corporate world salaries are linked to the number of hours of work. A skilled worker gets more than an unskilled worker. Similarly, if workers have the same skills, the same hours of work and similar responsibilities, we expect them to get the same wages. That is plain justice! But God does not see matters in the same way as human beings.
2. GOD’S EXTRAVAGANT GENEROSITY
In this parable, Jesus is certainly not abrogating the valid and necessary principles of justice. Rather he is giving us an opportunity to grasp the fact that by his nature, God is extravagantly generous, beyond the rational rules of financial exchange. The generous and loving manner in which the landowner deals with the workers reflects the generosity of God. God thinks of justice in terms of people’s dignity and their right to a decent life. God’s justice holds that the people who have come late have the same right to a living wage and decent life as those who have worked all day. Hence, all must be treated identically.
Evidently, Jesus wants us to see that God “pays” people on pay scale that is different from the one which human beings use. The length of time one serves Christ does not entitle him/her to greater blessings. Whether one has been a follower of Christ for a long time or had only started following today, everyone is just as valuable to the Lord. He loves us all the same regardless of how long one has followed him. God’s desire is to give us all the same reward. In other words, we could say that those who have been faithful to God all their lives, kept the commandments, attended Holy Mass regularly, were faithful to a daily prayer time, lived Godly lives in general, like the earliest workers, will get the promised reward – ETERNAL LIFE IN HEAVEN. Similarly, those who get converted somewhere in mid-life, and begin living a good life at that time, will also get the agreed upon award – ETERNAL LIFE IN HEAVEN. Again, those whose conversion came at the last moment, say on their death-beds, will still get exactly the same reward as everyone else– ETERNAL LIFE IN HEAVEN. In fact, salvation only comes in one size. This is Jesus’ message.
We are encouraged, therefore, to welcome with joy the repentant sinner, regardless of how long it takes them to repent. We remember the words of Jesus: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). This is a lesson for us not to worry about the length of time one has faithfully served, but rather to rejoice in all who have served, regardless of how long.
Our God is indeed extravagant. We recall that he makes abundant, and even to excess, wine at the wedding feast of Cana (Jn 21-11); when he multiplied bread for the hungry crowds, he provided far more than they could consume (Matt 15, Mk 6, Lk 9, Jn 6); he tells a story about forgiving a debt far too large for the debtor to ever pay (Matt 18:21); and he tells us to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matt 18:22). Again, as the ultimate revelation of extravagant affection, he willingly gives up his life for us on a cross. Paul refers to “Christ crucified” as foolishness to human wisdom (1Cor 1:22-25). The good news of the gospel is that we share the extravagantly generous Spirit of Jesus. As Christians, we are also called upon to act with extravagant generosity, beyond the rational rules of justice. God rewards us, not in the measure of what we do, but according to his good will. While God is both just and merciful, God’s mercy often overrides his justice.
3. THE EARLY WORKERS AND THE LATE-COMERS: WHO ARE THEY?
In real life, the latecomers were the sinners in Jesus’ time who listened to his preaching and repented. The early workers were the Pharisees who were angry that the sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes repented, entered God’s kingdom late, and were getting the same reward as they. Their attitude might be compared to that of someone who criticized Jesus because he forgave the good thief on the cross saying to him, “today you will be in Paradise with me.” Even after the death of Jesus, early Jewish Christians complained about equal treatment accorded the Gentiles who were coming into the Church. Today’s established Christians often think they have rights over newcomers. Many lifelong Christians resent “death-bed conversions”.
The reality is that some people were born Christians. Their parents had been Christians before them. Maybe their grandparents were also Christians. They were baptized in infancy, did their First Holy Communion as children, were confirmed in their teens, and married in Church. Other people embraced Christianity at school, in childhood or adolescence. Yet others became Christians in their mature adulthood. Those who were born Christian cannot, for any reason, claim to be more Christian than the ones who become Christian as adults. It not how long that one became a Christian that really matters, but how well one has been a Christian. Therefore, at whatever point in our lives we turn to the Lord, at whatever point he gets our attention, God benevolently gives us the full reward – ETERNAL LIFE IN HEAVEN.
4. WE ARE LATE-COMERS
The Psalmist tells us clearly, “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness, for this we revere you.” (Ps 130:3-4). Quite often, some Christians conclude that if God does not treat every person exactly the same, then it is not fair. However, the reality would tell us that the only way for God to be truly fair is to send us all to Hell. If God were to treat us JUSTLY, as we sometimes demand for others, then none of us would ever be rewarded. Actually, we are labourers who have worked less than a full day. We have all been unfaithful to God in many ways. If justice is to be followed, as said earlier, then the only reward we can earn from God is punishment. However, because God is GENEROUS rather than JUST. We all receive a full day’s pay, even though we have not earned it. Imagine this: What if God made Mother Theresa of Calcutta or St. John Paul II as the standard by which we all are to be judged on our fitness to enter heaven, who would qualify? Considering our situations on these terms, we are left with nothing but to be extremely thankful that God does not judge us by human standards, but by his own divine standards alone.
5. THE SIN OF ENVY
Today’s gospel tells us that the early arrivals “thought that they would receive more” (Mtt 20:10). It is interesting to note that had the early workers not learned what the employer paid the late-comers, they would have gone home joyful and thankful. As it was, they went home angry, and envious. In essence, the labourers were dissatisfied not for what they received, but that the OTHERS received as much. Although the complainers would call their cause FAIRNESS, they had a classic case of ENVY. The landowner’s response to the grumbling of the early comers strikes at the root of the problem, “are you envious because I am generous?” When we compare ourselves to others – thinking that we should receive more, we become resentful and envious. When we focus on God’s generosity, we become joyful stewards.
In Jewish-Christian tradition, Satan’s envy of God brought the first temptation into the world. Again, envy was the cause of the sibling rivalry (between Cain and Abel) that led to the first murder and the first death. Envy can fester in individuals, in hierarchies, in the churches, in families, and in structured societies of all kinds.
Envy does not say: “I want what you have too”, but “I WANT WHAT YOU HAVE, AND I WANT YOU NOT TO HAVE IT.” Unlike jealousy, its close relative which simply focuses on possessing a coveted object, envy says “I want to take it away from you, and if I can’t do that, I will spoil or destroy it for you.” Therefore, whereas jealousy can be based on attraction (of an object), envy originates in hatred (for people). But envy goes beyond hatred. When we hate, we want to demolish what we see as bad; but with envy, we want to destroy what is good in people’s lives. Envious people live in a perpetual state of focusing on what others around them have and what they themselves lack. The envious focus mostly on material things: big house, greater intelligence, fancy cars, stylish clothes, the best brands etc. in the religious sphere, one can be tempted to envy also when one sees former sinners attain positions of eminence and/or when one observes people who are less talented than him/her advancing in certain careers. The envious focus not on what is distant, like the millionaire’s fortune, but on what is close to them, like the neighbour next door who makes 2.000 Frs, more a day then they. Envy can have a dehumanizing effect on those who are guilty of it. It makes them mean. Envy leads to further sin. Because envy leads to further sins, it is a capital sin as well, possibly coming to involve gossip for a start, and slander, next, with malice calling all the shots. Next it may give birth to deep-seated hatred that leads at time even to murder.
6. SOME REMEDIES FOR ENVY
a) Imitate God’s generosity. Today’s responsorial psalm reminds us that although “the Lord is just in all his ways,” he is at the same time gracious “and merciful.” One way to curb envy is to imitate the generosity of God and never to begrudge God’s grace to others.
b) Learn to ignore certain things in life. We must understand that what we are lusting after is not that important, after all, compared to the goals that are truly worth pursuing in our life. A good and happy life consists of a lot more that lusting for material things.
c) Be self-reliant. Self-reliant people do not allow themselves to feel envious about what they do not have. They handle their emotions, and can take care of their own needs and the needs of others without ‘stretching their eyes’ to what does not belong to them.
d) Acknowledge the fact that you are envious. Once envy owns up, and one recognizes his/her folly, envy can be transformed into new challenges and opportunities of growth, which can lead to a recognition that fulfillment comes not from some THINGS, but from SOMEONE–God, in whom we live and move and have our being.
7. A FEW POINTS TO TAKE HOME
a) The parable is not tailor-made to bring comfort to dossers, lay-abouts and late-comers. It does not say: “go out and do whatever you want; it does not make any difference. God will still welcome you into heaven!” If it were so, then, what is the point in trying to play one’s full part in life, if at the end of the day all are treated in the same way? Why strain, if one can amble along at the eleventh hour and collect the same wage for one hour’s work? No, the parable teaches us that God is loving and compassionate, and allows each of us to come to him in our own time.
b) The person who has been making the effort to live a decent life should not feel discouraged that he/she has been sacrificing and working hard only to be “cheated” by public sinners and idle loafers, who come up to God at the eleventh hour. In fact, it is ridiculous to think that we are deprived of something by those so live recklessly! What is better than knowing the love of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit? What is better than God’s peace which the world cannot even understand?
c) We should remember that for coming early to the vineyard, we are “rewarded” with living in relationship with God NOW before we die. It gives us an opportunity to enjoy Heaven on Earth. By living a true Christian life of going to Church, partaking in the sacraments, serving others and keeping the commandments, one has his/her reward. It is not just a kind of a toilsome full-day’s work for which we go “rewarded”. Being a Christian produces its own rewards and satisfaction. In fact, it makes heaven on earth because being in Heaven starts with being heavenly here on earth.
d) We must learn to “let God to be God”. In the Letter to the Romans God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” (Romans 9:15). God does not have to explain himself to anyone. We must never confuse the issues of justice and mercy. Justice is getting what you deserve. Injustice is when you are robbed of what you deserve. Mercy is being spared the bad that you deserved. Our job is not to decide who is worthy of salvation and who is not. Our job is to proclaim the gospel message of the wonderful news that God’s grace is available to all.
Let us pray that God may grant us a heart as generous as his own, so that we may kill the envy that often takes hold of us. May we be able to appreciate God’s to other and may we have thankful hearts and thankful lives! Amen!