25th Sunday of ordinary Time
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.
The parable we just listened to in today’s Gospel has always been a difficult one for most of us Christians to understand. It is difficult for us because we tend to judge by our own cultural standards, and thus it seems perhaps that the way the owner of the vineyard pays his workers is not really fair or just. But again, we have to begin from the truth that our ways of thinking are not always open to what God wants to teach us.
In order to better understand the teaching of the parable, we have to begin from that powerful truth stated by Isaiah in the first reading, that God’s ways of thinking and acting are not to be measured by ours, that God’s ways are as far beyond our way of thinking as heaven is beyond earth. So, unless we keep that biblical truth in mind, we will never really grasp what Jesus is trying to teach us in this parable, or many others. Our understanding depends upon this foundation of humility.
Now, the first thing we have to understand is that this parable is not at all about economic justice. Nonetheless, the parable is using an economic situation to illuminate a higher truth, and that truth has to do with God’s plan of salvation. Here, Jesus uses the issue of work and pay as the basis for his teaching about the much greater truth about God’s grace, human effort, and man’s salvation. The parable is really about the way that God saves us and the way God rewards us for our efforts in the Kingdom of God. Seeing it as a parable about economic justice just misses the whole point of the parable.
Now, the image of the vineyard, used in this parable, is found in various teachings of Jesus, and it is always identified with the Kingdom of God, the Church, the place of our salvation. The owner of the vineyard is to be seen as representing God, and those looking for work in the vineyard represent us, seeking salvation.
Next, it must also be understood that like the owner in the parable, God, has no obligation to let any of us into His vineyard or Kingdom. None of us has any right to his choosing us. So, whether we are allowed into the vineyard early or late, when young or old, the fact that we are called there at all is itself a pure gift from the owner. That aspect of the parable, then, relates to the first grace, the grace and gift of justification whereby we are brought into the vineyard to work out our salvation.
This first grace of the owner can also be seen as the image of the Sacrament of Baptism, that pure gift of our generous God who brings us into His kingdom, his vineyard, through no merits of our own, but purely out of his great generosity. We have no “right” to be there at all.
However, once we enter the Vineyard to go to work, for the sake of the Kingdom, then we are enabled to earn a certain “pay” in terms of an enrichment of our souls by further graces. This “pay” however always remains a gift even while we merit it, since it always depends upon that first grace which is totally unmerited. This being true, it somewhat relativizes the basic situation of whether we enter the Kingdom early or late in life, and thus whether our work is long – all day or half a day as in the parable – or brief – the final hour. Whatever the owner gives us for our work is nothing in comparison to that initial gift/grace of allowing us to work in Hs Kingdom at all.
So, once again, the parable is focused mainly on that unmerited supreme grace of justification. The fact that we can then work to gain a greater reward is secondary to that first grace, and totally dependent upon it. Without that first unmerited grace, we are lost and never have a chance to earn anything by our labors. Indeed, understanding the utter gratuity of the grace of justification transforms our focus on our labor itself into a duty that is owed to the owner and only secondarily is it to be seen as a claim in justice.
However, there may remain for us the problem of an equal pay for unequal work, where the last are paid the same as the first. We might more easily see the fact that the first grace of salvation itself is perhaps the same for all, whether one receives that gift early or late. It is pure gift, whereas the labor itself in the vineyard is both gift – since it depends upon that first grace – and reward, as the fruit of one’s own labors. How do we deal with that? Again, it starts from the truth that God’s ways are not ours.
So we have to look more closely at the deeper meaning of the parable. For instance, even on the level of economic justice, earthly justice, is there is nothing really unjust or unfair that the owner has done in giving the last the same reward as the first. How can there be any injustice when the owner gives the first workers exactly what they agreed upon for their labor, a just pay for a day’s labor. He in fact says to those at noon “I will give you what is just.” So he is a just man.
On the other hand there is nothing “unfair” in the fact that the owner, out of the same generosity in which he hired all the workers, chooses to give the last hired the same day’s wage as the first. So, when he gives the last hired workers the same as the first, he is not committing an injustice against anyone. He justly pays the first workers what they agreed to as a just wage. And he goes beyond justice in giving the others more than justice demands, just as he went beyond justice to hire them all in the first place.
Salvation is not an act of human justice but of divine justice and mercy. It is divine justice since God’s Son merited for the human race something the human race could never merit. And thus at the same time it is divine mercy since God was in no way obliged to offer His son for our salvation nor to call anyone into His Kingdom.
In the parable, we see portrayed this same mercy that goes beyond strict justice which marks the whole plan of salvation. In the parable his mercy goes beyond justice in that he is giving them, as a gift of mercy, what these men desperately needed, that is, a full day’s income to feed their families that day. So he gave them what justice could not demand, a 90% gift in order to feed their families.
When the first workers grumble, because they think, like us perhaps, that the owner in fairness should also give them more than they earned, the owner sets them straight: “Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Or, are you envious because I am generous?”
Obviously, then, this is not a parable about economic justice. It has to do solely with God’s gifts of salvation, and how salvation takes place. No one has any claim of strict justice when it comes to salvation. Like all parables, you have to work to see the way the situation in the parable illustrates some great spiritual truth.
Regarding the grace of justification, le learn that those who come first, perhaps the Pharisees and other Israelites, no more merit God’s salvation in the strict sense than those who come late, that is we Gentiles. And the same is true within the Christian Communion, that those who are baptized as infants no more merit the grace of justification which saves them than do those who come later in life to the Church, even at the last hour of their lives. Justification and salvation are in the final analysis a gift from God, merited by Jesus Christ for all of us, not by any of us.
Then, regarding the rewards or merits we earn by our labors in the vineyard of God’s kingdom, we learn this truth, that they are at once a gift and a reward. Since salvation always remains at its root a pure gift of God, the work that the baptized, the justified, perform in the vineyard is always both a reward and a gift. The truth is that salvation is not a static reality, but a gift that grows, because God’s holiness, the essence of salvation, grows in the human soul by our labors. Thus the Church teaches that while salvation in its root is a pure gift, salvation in its full growth is both a gift and a reward. Thus, while initial justification is pure gift, those who labor in the vineyard do in fact, based on this initial gift, merit a reward, the growth of the gift of salvation. And thus they are truly privileged to be able to work their whole life long and grow in holiness. On the other hand, those who come last may not be so privileged in this regard.
I say “may not,” because once again God’s ways are not ours. It’s very possible that the holiness that grows in the gift of salvation may grow very quickly in those who love God with great intensity. That may be why the Good thief merited to enter heaven immediately upon death, because like the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, he may have loved God much more than some who came to the vineyard much earlier in life but had not loved not so much as he.
It’s like a soldier who say enters the battle later than his comrades, but who brings his courage to perfection by a single act of self-sacrifice to save his comrades from death. Growth in holiness or salvation can be the same, that one great act of intense love, like the compassion of the dying thief, was enough to bring his soul to perfection and enter Heaven.
That truth consoles us, does it not, that it’s never too late to make tremendous progress in holiness, bringing our salvation, always a gift, to its perfection by our cooperation with that grace. Moreover, the Father is always merciful and most generous and always rewards us for our labors more than we ever deserve, like the last men in the parable. His mercy always makes us richer than any merits we may have. All we need do is turn to His Son with deep compassion and love for His “always more’ than we deserve. And we know from His teaching, as in this parable, that He always gives us more than we ever deserve, just like the owner of that vineyard in the parable gives to those who came last into His vineyard.