25th Sunday of the Year – September 24, 1972 – St. Elizabeth’s, Manhattan
The parable told by Jesus in today’s Gospel, although it is familiar to us, is one we find it difficult to be comfortable with. I think normally we find ourselves sympathizing with the man who had worked all day, only to find another, who had worked only an hour, receive the same pay as he. That we are so moved is good, because it means we are involved in the story, and that, therefore, Jesus’ words to the man are also addressed to us.
The parable is a figure of our life before God. He is the owner of the estate, we are the workers, and the reward of the day’s wages is eternal life. We are not supposed to look for allegorical meanings in each of the different times the owner goes out recruiting workers, nor, even more, are we to read it in the light of death-bed conversions, although some of the resentment we may be tempted to on such an occasion reveals a good deal about the secret joys of our hearts. The point of the parable lies in the concluding dialogue, in the contrasting attitudes of the owner and the all-day worker.
The man had agreed to his day’s wage. When day ended, that was what he expected. He had a right to no more and to no less. The owner, of his free choice, gives the other worker the same wage, not because he has worked as hard in his hour as the other man all day, but merely because he wished to be generous to him. For the man who has worked all day, this is incomprehensible; generosity is not a category or value that ought to be in play in such matters. You do your day’s work for your day’s pay. Everything is on a clear and certain level of work for the sake of reward. Generosity introduces an entirely new element.
That, of course, is the whole point. For, in the context in which Jesus first spoke the parable, it was addressed to those religious leaders of the time who had made man’s relation with God entirely a matter of justice: man keeps the law, and God rewards him. By his effort man, in a sense, binds God to reward him. Correspondingly, the man who does not do the work receives, not reward, but punishment. But, the main import of Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God is precisely that this is an inadequate way of conceiving of God’s dealings with man. For the Kingdom comes as God’s free grace, for which no one has a right. Every man before God is a sinner, equally unworthy of his free forgiveness. Justice–work for the sake of reward–is not adequate to the love God would show man. New categories have to be used to understand how and where man stands before God, categories such as love, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance despite unacceptability.
There is where we stand, also. We are addressed by those words. And if we find ourselves sympathizing with the all-day worker, it is because we have trouble recognizing that we ourselves stand before God not because we have done something, but simply because he has done something. Our sense of values is challenged. Words like forgiveness and reconciliation must stand at the center of our dealings both with God and with man. I think it is this that most upsets us. For to acknowledge that we are the creatures of God’s free forgiveness requires us to be the same free forgivers towards others. We can no longer sit back and judge everyone and everything in terms of work and reward. We have to be generous as he is generous, loving as he is loving, initiators of reconciliation as he himself came to meet and reconcile us to himself.
The Gospel, so understood, is presented to us as the concrete illustration of the words of the prophet we have also heard today. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” Let us pray and, if need be, repent, that our thoughts and ways have so often been the opposite of the ways and thoughts of the God who has made us his own beloved children, in Jesus Christ our Lord.
25TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – SEPTEMBER 23, 1990 – ST. PHILIP NERI
Parables work when they startle. They startle when they run counter to expectations, when they surprise or annoy or challenge, when we find ourselves among the dramatis personae. And if we really listen to it, and do not simply let it pass over our heads, there are few parables with more ability to startle than the one we have just heard.
There are, you may notice, two groups who were startled in the parable: the ones who worked all day and the ones who worked only for an hour. With which of them do we identify ourselves? Where are we in the parable? I suspect that we put ourselves among the day-long workers, did we not? After all, we’re here in Church; we try to live the faith and keep the commandments; we struggle to be faithful to the Gospel demand of love, accepting its demands and burdens. Are you going to tell us now that a Lucky Luciano (to date myself) who goes to confession on his deathbed has as much chance of heaven as we do?
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is not a lesson in how to run a business; in fact, if anyone tried to run a business accordingly, he wouldn’t be in business very long. If you pay people the same for eight hours work that you do for one hour, you won’t have many people working eight hours. No, the parable is about the contrast between the ordinary way we act and the way God acts. It nicely illustrates the words of the prophet chosen as its Old Testament anticipation: “My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, nor are your thoughts my thoughts. But as far as heaven is above the earth, so are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
If our sympathies went naturally to the day-long workers, then this parable is directed to us. The emphasis falls on the concluding dialogue, particularly the illuminating question: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Our envy comes from our wanting to live in a world in which everything is nicely and clearly articulated: there are duties; we fulfill them; we get rewarded; those who don’t fulfill them don’t get rewarded. It’s all simple: commands, obedience, reward. You know where you stand. And from the beginning of the biblical tradition, there have been people who have wanted to put religion, their relationship to God, their notion of God, into the same framework: commands, obedience, reward.
But then suddenly there is this odd behavior: a perfectly incomprehensible break with the pattern: someone else being equally rewarded for a tenth of the effort we have expended. It doesn’t fit, and we feel resentment start to gnaw away at our stomachs and the bile starts to flow. And at whom are we angry? Perhaps at the other workers, but especially at the employer or, applying the parable, at God. And then comes the devastatingly illuminating question: Do you resent my generosity?
What a terrible thing: to resent generosity! But how true it is! Isn’t that precisely it?–we don’t want generosity interfering. It breaks the pattern, shatters the neat world of commandobedience-reward. Two things, I think, especially trouble us. It forces us to recognize that the world the God of Jesus Christ inhabits is one in which the first word is, not command, but love, generosity–towards us, too. We also are those who have only worked an hour and are undeserving of the full day’s salary. Why did we not think that? Why did we naturally associate ourselves with the all-day workers? Have we forgotten that no one has earned, has a right to, deserves the generosity God has displayed to us in Jesus Christ?
And the other thing that troubles us in accepting this parable is the realization that if we are also the objects of God’s generosity, then the pattern of relationships among ourselves and towards others is also going to have to be marked by generosity. Command-obedience-reward doesn’t work here either. Our relations with one another are also going to have to be marked by generosity, by love, by forgiveness. And we shrink from accepting this: it leaves too much up in the air; we sense we lose control; we fear what such a standard might someday require of us by way of love and generous service of others.
This parable still works.
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 21, 2008 – Blessed Sacrament
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–I got the impression that they didn’t think they were allowed to consider such a question–a few of them spoke up, and the parable that we have just heard was one of the sayings mentioned, and when reminded of it, several other students 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 visit; if the landowner’s example were to be followed, how could they 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 grumbled that he welcomes sinners and eats with them. The older son in the parable of the forgiving father grumbled and wouldn’t go into the party celebrating his brother’s return. He, too, complain ed about the injustice of it. They all resented Christ’s generosity. They wanted 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 left them disoriented, lost; their neat world was suddenly spinning round, and they were experiencing vertigo.
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 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 love, 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. Could there be a sadder response than that we, rather than welcoming and celebrating it, instead resent God’s generosity?