Originally written for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Times, Sept. 18, 2011
by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ
In a way, I am grateful for some of the esoteric and elegant math I’ve learned in physics. It gives me a nosebleed idea of the way God thinks.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
To illustrate the stratospheric gap between God’s thinking and ours, Jesus tells the parable of the landowner who hires different laborers at different times for his vineyard. At the end of the day, he then compensates the later ones with the same amount as those he hired at dawn.
When the early birds complain about the unfairness of it all, the landowner asks them, “Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
First of all, this parable is about God’s equally generous treatment of the Chosen People of the Old or First Testament and the junior latecomers of the New Testament. It should disabuse the senior citizens of their sense of entitlement.
Secondly, this is also a parable of God’s mercy, not unlike the parable of the prodigal “pasaway” who got away with it, to the consternation of the older, faithful brother who felt entitled to better treatment since he had been slaving away all this time at his father’s house.
When it comes to distributing grace, there is no such thing as seniority. The gospel story is told to make us think twice, or to make us think at least the way God thinks.
If you think you’ve got it made or you feel entitled to Paradise just because you inherited it (by being part of some chosen, covenanted community) or just because you think you’ve earned it, think again.
Thinking the way we think, I wonder how many of us reading the gospel today would want to push the envelope and try working only in the last two minutes to see if God would reward us the same pay as those who worked all day.
I wonder if those who were hired late and paid a day’s wage for little work came back the next day at the same, eleventh hour. And I wonder also if those who worked early went at a much later time the next day.
Thinking the way we think, we say what a foolish landowner. He will only demoralize his diligent workers by rewarding the late performers. He is sending mixed signals. This is not good public policy. This is a recipe for greater disorder even if the labor contracts are shut solid.
Of course, we know this story is not a case study in labor relations. The parable is all about the boundlessness of God’s generosity in stark contrast with the bounded ways we treat each other and ourselves.
How do we treat each other? Let me count the (bounded) ways. Two ways actually, at least.
One, we may love unrequitedly at first but we later only love in return for love. We sing “all is fair in love” but if you come to think of it, there is nothing fair about mercy or forgiveness, or even love. Even if we hold love to be reciprocal, love is always “first move.” Of course, we knew this when love was young. Our (bounded) way is to reduce love over the years to a transaction or an equation. Quid pro quo (“kaliwaan”) will get you order and satisfaction and vindication; it won’t necessarily give you love.
Two, we may “give without counting the cost,” or seek not so much “to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love,” but we will always be surrounded by this fear that the kindness will be abused, the generosity exploited, and the love taken for granted. This fear is not unfounded.
You think the landowner thinks the way we think? You think he gives us only what we deserve, “in fairness lang”? You think he is afraid we will game the system and be flippant about his generosity?
Try sitting idle and see if God will reward you. Try putting your faith and your life on idle and see if God will soften up on you. You think God has been sitting idle not seeing you, not inviting you to the vineyard?