The Last Shall Come First

25th Sunday of the Year
The parable in today’s Gospel is clearly a parable teaching us a difficult truth about God’s Grace and salvation, and it is a perfect example of the words in Isaiah that God’s way are not ours, and that His ways are as far above our ways and his thoughts above our thoughts as the heavens are above the earth.
There is no doubt that Jesus constructs the parable so as to evoke from his listeners a feeling of unfairness in the way the Owner of the Vineyard has treated the servants who worked all day and received the same pay as those who labored but a single hour in his vineyard.   In all honesty, would we not have complained against the owner if he paid us the same wage for a whole day’s labor that he paid to those whom he sent into the vineyard at the last hour?
And yet even if we were to take the parable strictly as a parable about natural justice, we would be forced by Jesus to confront the truth that we are not so much concerned with justice in this matter, as with the fact that we are envious of those who have had the good fortune to receive as a gift what we have had to work for, and work hard for.  The owner, after all is quite correct, that he has not been unjust to anyone, that he has paid the agreed upon fair daily wage for a day’s work to those who worked all day.  Justice has been met in their case; he has denied them nothing that is owed in justice to them.  And if he chooses to go beyond justice with those who were not fortunate enough to find work earlier in the day, and give them, in charity a full day’s wages, what complaint does the first group of laborers really have?
Why then so they feel cheated, and why do we tend to agree with that feeling that somehow they have been wronged?  Is it because the  full day laborers “deserve” more?  Why?  Or is it because we think the other laborers should not be given charity to make them equals to the first group, even if it means they and their families will not eat that day? We must recognize that in the ancient world, a just day’s wages were necessary literally to feed one’s family for that day.  Without that wage, the family would go hungry.  And in the parable, notice that the laborers are not idle because they are lazy, but because they have not been hired by anyone.  And still, the first group seems to be saying that either the owner has to be charitable with all, or with none!  Either he gives them more than they have earned, or deny the others a sufficent pay to feed their families!  The key is that there should not be equality, the others should be kept below those who have labored all day.
It’s strange, is it not,  that we who proclaim equality as such a value should feel that way,  that we could wish an inequality to exist even where it means the other person goes without necessities?  The owner simply saw men in need, and in no way was unjust to anyone in going beyond justice to help meet the necessities of the needy?  This is surely the way God understands the demands of justice and charity, but it is not the way we tend to think in these matters, or why would we feel there is something unfair involved here.
But if we take the parable as Jesus clearly intended it, it is not about earthly justice, but justification, not simply about earthly labor, but God’s Grace.  The owner of the vineyard is clearly God.  The first laborers can stand either for the Chosen people, especially the Pharisees who thought they could literally earn justification, or it could stand for those who are Christians from their early life; while the last group can stand for the gentiles as a whole who come late to God’s vineyard, or for those souls like the good thief, whom Jesus chooses to give salvation to after but a few kind words – today you will be with me in Paradise. St Robert Bellarmine held that the good thief really was a good and holy man who had been a thief but had repented before he was caught and crucified. But he was a thief and he did gain immediate entry into heaven as a result of his compassion for Christ.
The Pharisees would have been especially upset by any such notion that God is free to do with his Grace as he chooses, that he can bring the Gentiles into the vineyard and place them on the same level as those who had worked so many centuries in His service.  But that is what will happen in Jesus’ kingdom, as the gentiles enter on an equal basis with the Jewish Christians.  And likewise Jesus is warning us that some who come last will be first, will be “given” higher places in th kingdom, greater graces, simply because of the generosity of God, while many who came first will be last.  The thief will be given heaven on a platter, souls down through the centuries will have last minute conversions, and they will end up in heaven, some perhaps with a higher place than some who lived their whole lives as Christians.  And if we think that is unfair, we prove that we do not understand the ways of God and do not appreciate the fact that salvation and grace are gifts from God for everyone, and when it comes to gifts we have no right to make demands or to feel jealous because God is more generous with others than with ourselves.
You see, none of us gets to heaven except by an initial pure gift of grace from God, and even the work we accomplish to merit a higher reward is itself made possible, and sustained, only by God’s prevenient grace.  That is why Augustine says in the end all is grace.  Yes we can merit, but even out merit is made possible by and sustained by God’s grace preceding our works.
This truth can be seen even in the parable itself is we look more closely.  The workers who worked all day did so, only because they were given the free gift of a job, were freely chosen by the owner to work in his vineyard.  They continued the whole day only because the owner freely continued to employ them.  Yes they earned the wage, just as we can merit a reward by our good works, but in both cases a free gift of the Owner is necessary, or we have nothing.  The first into the vineyard had the consolation of a job; while those outside had to worry and search all day long in fear that they would go hungry that night.  We who come into the Kingdom have the consolation of knowing we are secure in God’s grace, but it is and always remains a gift, just as much as the gift others may receive only after a life-time of searching in the darkness and knowing nothing of the security and consolation of being in God’s kingdom.
In the end, the moral is clear, if we really recognize that our presence in God’s Kingdom is and always remains his gift, no matter how much merit we may acquire, we will not be jealous, but overjoyed that others have been given this same gift, or even more, although they have come late into the vineyard.  In the parable of the prodigal son, the older brother shows that he does not really deeply love the father, nor appreciate the love and generosity the father has shown toward him – he just resents that the younger brother is so welcomed into His father’s house when he returns in repentance.
We must keep the truth firmly in mind that everything in the end, as Augustine said, is Grace, that if we are saved at all, it by the mercy of God and his pure gift.  If we see that, if we firmly believe that, we will never know anything but joy whenever we witness God’s generosity toward others, and we shall love God all the more for what He has done for ourself by his marvelous gifts of grace.

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