Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 18, 2011 – St. John’s
A few years ago, I asked my undergraduate class at Catholic University whether there were any sayings of Jesus that they didn’t like. After some hesitation–they didn’t think they were allowed to consider such a question–a few of them spoke up, and one of them mentioned the parable that we have just heard, and several other students quickly agreed. The parable is unfair, they argued. I suggested to them that their disagreeing with a parable of Jesus was a pretty good sign that it was meant for them!
Obviously, the parable is not about how to run a vineyard or conduct a business; if the landowner’s example were to be followed, how could one ever get anyone to start working early in the morning? In fact, it is the senselessness of the landowner’s action that is the point of the parable, his contradiction of normal practice. Christ is saying that what is going on in his ministry, what God is saying in his words and what God is doing in his deeds, what God’s reign is going to be like, cannot be understood, cannot be measured, cannot be limited by ordinary criteria and expectations.
The parable’s point is found in the dialogue between those who worked all day and the landowner. They grumble that the ones who worked only an hour get the same wage as they who had labored all day in the heat. The landowner’s reply is that he has done no injustice to those men; he has fulfilled his side of the contract by giving them what they agreed to. Then he adds: “I choose to give this last one the same as you. Am I not free to do what I want? Are you envious because I am generous?” Literally, he asks him, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” I looked at other translations and found these: “Why be jealous because I am kind?”“Do you begrudge (or do you resent) my generosity?” I particularly like that last one: “Do you resent my generosity?”
Jesus had to hear this kind of grumbling, murmuring, more than once. The Pharisees and scribes grumble that he welcomes sinners and eats with them. The older son in the parable of the forgiving father grumbles and won’t go into the party celebrating his brother’s return. He, too, complains about the injustice of it. They all resent Christ’s generosity. They want to restrict what God can do to the narrow confines of justice: to the logic of command, obedience, proportionate reward. That this logic should be disregarded leaves them disoriented, lost; they experience vertigo–their neat world is suddenly spinning round.
Religious people seem especially tempted to such grumbling. I remember a priest once being upset at learning that it might be that Anglicans celebrate and receive a valid Eucharist, as if that would not be something to be glad of, as if their enjoying the presence and the power of Christ in the sacrament took something away from the grace we Catholics enjoy. Some people have been upset by the remarkable statement in Vatican II”s Decree on Ecumenism: “Many, indeed very many, of the most significant elements and endowments that go to build up and give life to the Church can exist outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church.” “Why, then, be a Catholic?” I have heard it asked. When the Council spoke of “a ray of that truth which enlightens all men” being reflected in the beliefs and practices of non-Christian religions, some people grumbled and wondered, “Why be a Christian?” Once again, it is as if for God to be generous to others is thought somehow to be an injustice to us.
The point of today’s parable is effectively prepared by our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah: “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.” It was a lesson that Israel found it hard to accept, and it is a lesson that many Catholics have found it hard to accept. The prophet Hosea put the contrast sharply: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy” (Hos 11:8-9).
“For I am God, not man, the Holy One in your midst.” The utter transcendence of God does not consist mainly in his eternity, in his omniscience, in his omnipotence; it consists in his holiness, and for him to be “the Holy One in our midst” is for him to love where human beings don’t, because he does not come in fierce anger, because he does not come to destroy, because in fact he came in Jesus Christ, who embodied God’s generosity. This is what it means for the reign of God to have come, for the reign of God to continue to come, and could there be a sadder response than, rather than welcoming and celebrating it, instead to resent such generosity?