Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 55:6-9
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 1:20-24, 27
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 20:1-16
“That’s not fair!” This was the desired response to the classroom exercise. Years ago, morality guru and football announcer extraordinaire Drew Vilinsky ’97 asked me if I had any ideas that might help to bring his students to a more personal understanding of the workings of what one might call Natural Law, Objective Reality, or the Logos. He felt, correctly, of course, that any discussion of morality is futile without a sense that there is such a thing as right and wrong and not just ‘right for me’ or ‘wrong for me.’
My crazy idea, which Drew totally bought into and ran with, was to have a quiz and give students failing grades no matter their answers. The results were as predictable as they were dramatic as well as being a bit frightening, and, needless to say, Drew was quick to rectify the situation. The experiment was a total success: no matter what they might say to the contrary, the students believed in the objective nature of right and wrong.
The laborers in Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard have a similar reaction when they find out that those who toiled all day received the same pay as those who only worked one hour. The full-day workers’ anger focused on the full-day’s wage given to those who arrived to the field late in the day and their own sense of injustice at earning the same amount – they wanted to be paid, it seems, eight times what the latecomers received.
In one sense we can sympathize with those who “bore the day’s burden and the heat,” especially since those who came late had been “standing idle in the marketplace.” Something of the older brother in the Parable of the Lost (or Prodigal) Son comes out in all of us as we come to the same conclusion as the tired, all-day workers: “That’s not fair!”
Although we, along with Drew Vilinsky’s students, might feel kinship with the parables’ workers at being done over by “The Man,” there is one key difference between the classroom and the field: in the parable, the aggrieved workers got what they deserved – what we usually call “justice.”
Would that we could jump into the scene and tell the workers that it’s just a parable, and that Jesus is making a point about the Kingdom of God rather than how workers should be paid. When He begins with the phrase, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like” those who are listening need to pay special attention and realize that this is a story where God the Father is going to manifest a divine, and not a human, way of acting.
We mere mortals, rightly, care about justice – we are built that way and we see injustice so often that our senses are in a state of constant look-out for such activity. God, on the other hand, is more concerned with mercy, and this parable speaks to His desire that all might find their eternal reward in the Kingdom of Heaven. In the eyes of our Father a sincere and whole-hearted deathbed conversion is as good as a lifelong pursuit of virtue. For God, it is the end-game that matters.
This might be difficult for some to swallow - that aggrieved older brother is always lurking in the shadows – yet it should be a comfort to us all. When Isaiah speaks in the first reading of the need for the scoundrel to turn to the Lord for mercy he could be speaking to anyone who has ever stood “idle in the marketplace.” No matter how dedicated we might be to leading a life of Christ-like virtue none of us is immune from such ‘idle’ living. Nor would any of us be wise, when the time comes, to demand God’s justice – unless we have a good response when invariably He asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?”