Let’s start with the last reading, Jesus’ story as told by St. Matthew and that we just heard. I think no one would deny that the agreement between the boss and the workers is logical. It’s honest and just. They agreed to be paid a certain amount of money for a decided-upon number of hours of labor. And both they and the boss kept their word at the end of the day. No problem there.
But, enter the latecomers, who began to work pretty near closing time. For whatever personal reason, the boss decides to pay them the same as he was paying those who worked much longer hours . All emotional feelings aside, who can say that the “early birds” were being in any way cheated? Really no one.
On the surface of the issue, it does seem at first that the charge of unfairness can be defended; but deeper analysis reveals that, strictly speaking, the boss’s generosity to those who were hired late in the day has nothing to do with what he owed those those who had worked longer.
(I must, though, add parenthetically that this is no way to foster peace and harmony among the workers!)
It was decades ago that I began to suspect that Jesus was deliberately trying to upset his hearers, both those in his own day and us today, as a way of making us all think more deeply about life. And I have developed that line of thought into four possibilities of what he had in mind and intention:
That whether life has been kind or cruel to us, we are fortunate to have lived at all, because life is ultimately beautiful and unending beyond our deaths.
2. That we are not created to live in isolation — unnoticed, unwanted, and unrelated to others; no, we are called by the God of Life into relationship with God and our fellow humans, from which we are destined to gain a share in the eternal life of God.
3. That however competitive our progress in the present world must be, there should be no competition among the people of God. All are beneficiaries of God’s boundless mercy and love.
4. That God does not give us merely what is our due: God goes far beyond that always, gifting us with wild generosity and forgetting our offenses. There are no rules or restraints, no limits to God’s love, no conditions.
It seems to me that this Gospel story is aimed at our tidiness, our self-assured sense of justice, having all the “ducks” of our life in neat little rows. We are the ones who impose limits and all kinds of regulations which are perceived as putting us in good favor with God. But the truth is that God’s love is unmeasured and unchained. We have only to receive it with gratitude and joy and pass it on generously and forgivingly to others.
Jesus, with attractive stories like this one today, is coaxing us into a more reckless way of life patterned after the life of the one he called Father. He says, over and over again, “Just live, do good, be kind and generous and forgiving — and let happen what happens.”
The simple truth is that God will happen!