At the university of Namur there’s a drinking place with a poster: Le monde à l’envers, it means literally: the world upside down. When I look at this Sunday’s Gospel, the way the master of the vineyard treats the workers of the 11th hour; the tables of my mean ideas are just thrown upside down. Let’s see where Jesus is leading us this Sunday.
Bible readings Isaiah 55: 6-9 Psalm 145: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18 Philippians 1: 20-27 Matthew 20: 1-16
What we are used to
Only if you work in shifts, otherwise, you are expected to report for work in the morning. So it’s very unlikely that someone would offer piecework in the late afternoon, especially a farmer who would like to have his workers come early in the morning.
Another thing familiar to us in the world of employment is that your salary is conditioned by different forms of merits: your diplomas, your competence and your seniority, just to mention some. That’s the justice we know. But, the parable opens us to another form of justice.
Unpredictable master of 11th hour Workers
In the parable we have persons employed to work in the vineyard at different hours of the day, even in the evening. Evidently, we have those who have toiled for long time in the heat of the sun while others have worked only for short time. It’s only common sense to expect that their pay will be different. Isn’t it only annoying to see the behaviour of the master when it comes to giving the wage? Not only does he begin with those who came last but also he goes on to offer them the same amount. Of course, I sympathise with those who toiled the whole day. We can understand their indignation.
But who can understand the master’s manner of acting? Indeed, many are the times when we also don’t understand the way God does things. That’s why the first reading warns us. God’s ways are not ours, and our ways are not God’s. However, the challenge is: are we ready to part with our own way of seeing things and allow ourselves be transformed by God’s way? Let’s consider first what could be the background of this parable that upsets our logic.
Proud, meritorious workers
We have Scribes and Pharisee who have invested their energy and time studying the law and they observe it to the letter. That gives them a certain sense of superiority even among their fellow Jews. Moreover, they don’t just see how tax collectors, those known to be sinners and pagans can be saved. They don’t deserve it. And so when Jesus speaks of the people from the east, the west, south and from the north who will occupy places in the kingdom of God, surely, that may have sounded, in the ears of such proud law-observers, simply as a big joke. They think they are the only deserving ones. So they would say: keep the law and the law will keep you. In the end, it’s like salvation comes from their observance of the law and not from the love of God. They are in the barter system –an exchange of goods. I observe the law and God rewards me with blessings and salvation.
Can Christians have such mentality?
I don’t know, let’s check out. We can pose the question: don’t we have such business-transaction attitude in our relationship with God? That is, practising our religion not as a response to the love of God but rather as a way of assuring ourselves God’s favour? In a way, every time we accomplish a religious act it’s like we put God into debt. When things don’t go well with us, we wonder why they happen to us and we remind God of all the good things we have accomplished: we go to mass, we confess, we help the poor… It’s like we reproach him for not honouring his part of the contract. So, probably we are not far from the Pharisees; we too are in the logic of transaction. Besides, that is also seen in our meanness towards certain persons.
When a person, whom we esteem to be of questionable character, wherever we got the boldness to do that, seems to succeed in his life; perhaps there’s a feeling in us that we should be the ones enjoying that success. We look at him with a bad eye –we think he’s getting what should be for us; the deserving, faithful servants. What pride!
If Jesus uses this parable of the boundless bounty of God to correct the Pharisees; then, it’s equally a point of correction for us.
A handful of grace for each
The parable is not about working conditions. Neither is it about how salaries should be fixed. It’s about God’s mercy. We are not in a business relation with God, and there’s no need to compete with other for his favours. He loves us equally; he loves us even before we are able to do anything.
Indeed, it’s God who takes the first step towards us. And we become aware of his grace in our lives in different ways and at different moments. For some, it’s in the family since their childhood; others by extraordinary experiences in their adult life that become a point of conversion. And others still, they taste God’s grace at deathbed. Yet, despite such differences, no one is more deserving or less deserving; each one has a handful of grace waiting for him. Our part, essentially, is to open our heart and our hand to receive God’s gift. That’s why, probably, we are all workers of the 11th hour for we are there only by God’s grace and not by our merit.
One thing I ask of the Lord
Thank you Lord the light of your word that upsets my mean calculations and helps me see: I have nothing to boast about save your love for me. I ask you for one thing: deliver me from those little pious acts I perform in the hope of earning your love. They only give me pride and prevent me from appreciating your mercy.
Lastly, this parable makes me think of my brothers and sisters who are desperately looking for a job. I entrust them all to your fatherly care.
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See also: Crossroads: Babel, Tower of Arrogance