That’s not fair! How often have your heard that complaint from your children when you’ve refused them a request to stay up late or to go to a movie or stay over with friends? An older brother or sister was allowed to do these things, why can’t they? It’s just not fair. They’ll soon learn, as we’ve all learned; life isn’t fair.
Can’t you just imagine the scene in today’s gospel story? This wealthy land owner goes to the centre of the village looking for workers. A group of men anxiously wait to be hired for the day. They agree to the wage and head for the fields. Later on others are chosen and off they go. At the last moment others are hired and off they go. All these men had families to feed and were anxious for work.
The surprise comes when they line up to be paid, the last to the first and all receive the same wage. I think we can all relate to the complaint of the men who bore the scorching heat of the long day. This isn’t fair; you’ve made these Johnny-come-latelies equal to us. We deserve more or they should get less.
But the landowner, claiming that no injustice was done or agreement broken, does not accept their complaint. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ If we were in this situation we might answer, ‘sure you can do what you want with what is yours but it’s still not fair.’
This parable is not about collective bargaining or social justice. It is about the generous love God has for all of us. We can go back to the words of first reading where we heard God’s word: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We could add, ‘my love is greater than your love.’ In other words, ‘we will always be on different wavelengths.’
We can go back to our complaint, ‘this isn’t fair.’ Someone made this observation about today’s parable: “We think of justice in terms of what is fair, of what people deserve. So we would say that the people who worked longer deserved more. But God doesn’t see it that way. God thinks of justice in terms of people’s dignity, their right to a decent life.”
The people who came late had the same right to a decent life as those who had worked all day, so they are all treated equally. Nothing is taken from anyone, but all are treated in accord with their dignity, their right to a decent life. Such is God’s justice.
We could keep this in mind as we hear of cutbacks to social services, cutbacks that usually touch the most needy, men and women who have no voice, who are the mercy of the system. What impact will these cutbacks have on the sense of self worth of these good people?
Another thought about this ‘unfair’ parable is that Jesus told us this story to show how God’s caring heart works, how God loves us all equally, loves us all generously.
One final thought we should try to hold on to. We don’t have to be good to be loved. God’s love isn’t a reward for being good, doing our duty, resisting temptation, bearing the heat of the day in fidelity, saying our prayers, remaining pure, or offering worship. These are all good and important. God loves us because God is love and God cannot not love and cannot be discriminating in love. God’s love, as scripture says, shines on the good and bad alike. That’s nice to know when we need forgiveness and unmerited love, but it’s hard to accept when that forgiveness and love is given to those whom we deem less worthy of it, to those who didn’t seem to do their duty, like those hired late in the day. It’s not easy to accept that God’s love does not discriminate, especially when God’s blessings go out lavishly to those who don’t seem to deserve them.
As we continue to celebrate this Mass in which we celebrate the wonder that Christ died for us out of love for each of us no matter what our weakness, no matter what our struggles, we pray for each other that every day of life we try to respond to God’s love by living a life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.