Every three years we are called upon to meditate and to live by the teaching of this strange yet familiar parable (Mt 20:1-16) that flies in the face of distributive justice: i.e., each one should be getting whatever each one deserves. At first, it seems so unfair that everyone would get the same pay for strikingly different amounts of work. No union would find the owner of the vineyard just and up to union standards. Our definition of justice amounts to assurance of a fair remuneration in proportion to the amount and difficulty of work done. The more the work and the more difficult or dangerous it is the more one should be paid.
So why doesn’t God seem to understand this? Actually in an in-your-face type of challenge he tells us that the first shall be last and the last first.
Such way of reasoning would smack of arrogance if uttered by a human being; but this is God talking so we’d better take a closer look. With equal bluntness, through the prophet Isaiah (55:6-9), God warns us that his ways are quite different from ours; and he clearly implies that our ways are wrong and his are right.
If our starting point is last Sunday’s lesson (Mt 18:21-35) of being indebted to God in such a way that we will never be able to pay him back, we realize that our concept of justice cannot apply to our dealing with him. In other words, the starting point is an infinite debt: we each owe God the infinite price of his Son’s blood on the cross for our salvation. So, a full day’s work in the scorching sun or a mere hour of work would be equally inconsequential. It would be like your average worker trying to pay up the national debt by himself/herself.
This is hard to accept but inescapable. All our prayers, sacrifices, devotions, Holy Masses, purported merits, our strict, scrupulous observance of all of God’s laws, even our impeccable performance, if ever possible, cannot create the minimum leverage or generate any claim with God.
So, if distributive justice cannot apply to our relationship with God, what applies? What applies is the biblical concept of justice. It is found in the words: “my friend I am not cheating you (distributive justice is surpassed) and … Are you envious because I am generous?”
As I told you many times before, for the Bible one is just whenever one acts according to his/her nature and purpose. A teacher is just whenever she teaches well and with good results. So, since God is Love by definition, God is just precisely whenever he is life-giving, and generous, and completely acting like the Father that he is. Therefore, God can’t help it but being always just.
If we do not toss aside our justice-generated thoughts and ways whenever we deal with God we would be in deep trouble, we would be envious, to borrow Jesus’ word. Envy eats one from the inside and spoils the entire life of those who are convinced that someone else less deserving was given whatever they, in their what?…. goodness, merits, seniority, efforts, hard work and perceived rights should have gotten instead. In other words a jealous person is convinced that he/she got a raw deal.
If any of us is not yet convinced that we, people of the first hour, were privileged and fortunate and should pocket what we had agreed for and go home happy, that one is going to be embarrassed by a little consideration of the way our just and loving Father reasons. Every single one of those that assembled in that public square looking for a job had a family to feed and clothe and shelter, right? Those that got the job right away must have taken a sigh of relief and considered themselves lucky that their family would be OK, at least for that day, right? Those who got hired along the subsequent hours of the day could stop worrying and breathe easily as soon as they got to the vineyard, right?
Imagine instead the anguish of those that were left waiting and wondering, and worrying for most of the day! Do you see how petty we would be if we were to insist on distributive justice? It would mean that we fail to see God’s loving care for every single one of his children. It would also mean that the Sacraments, our Sunday gatherings for the Eucharist, God’s law guiding our life, the comfort of knowing him, the support of other believers’ prayers and all the rest would be taken for granted or overlooked. Yet there is more compelling evidence that God’s ways are right and ours wrong.
In any large family with many children would it be fair and reasonable to expect equal amount of workload from a child of three as from a 20-year-old? Would it be fair and just of the parents to love more those children who are capable of harder and more work because they are older and stronger? What good parent would not take care of the smallest ones first?
My ways are not like your ways, says the Lord and he is right.
If this is so, the sad conclusion that we must draw is that we might have come to this God’s table with an attitude. The lesson that we must learn in a hurry is, first, the lesson of sincere gratitude for having being called at the earliest hour. Then there should be humble acknowledgement that everything we receive from the Lord is totally undeserved. And, finally, there should be a reaction of visceral, genuine rejoicing for the Lord is a God of extreme, unparalleled generosity towards all, starting with the last: that the Lord is truly JUST.