Posted September 24, 2017
I don’t know if the Union of Casual Vineyard Workers existed in those days, but if it did, its reps will have had something to say about this parable (Matthew 20: 1-19), and understandably so. For it was crazy, surely, that the workers who had worked just a couple of hours should get as much pay as those who had worked all day. What kind of justice is that?
Now suppose the parable ended slightly differently. Suppose the vineyard owner were to answer the aggrieved workers who had been in the vineyard all day: ‘You can’t complain, because these workers who started at five in the evening did as much work in one hour as you did all day!’ Now that would make sense. That would satisfy our sense of fairness, wouldn’t it?
Actually, there was a Jewish parable possibly in circulation at the time of Jesus, that went just like that. But if Jesus was familiar with such a parable, then he has stood it on its head, for in Jesus’ parable there is no mention of the latecomers doing as much work in one hour as the others had done all day. Jesus’ parable is not about fair pay, or anything like that. It is about the vineyard owner being incredibly generous to those who had done nothing to earn it. It is about sheer grace rather than about just rewards.
The parable is not about our logic: it is about God’s logic, because that was the logic that Jesus was sent to demonstrate in his ministry. His message would have baffled and scandalized those who imagined they were entitled to remuneration from God, but it meant a great deal to the wretched outcasts and sinners who came to him, were welcomed by him and sat down at table with him and his disciples, seeking the Kingdom of Heaven. (By the way, did you notice that the parable is introduced with the words: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like …’?) The primary objective of Jesus’ ministry was to reach out to the failures who are still there in the market place at the end of the working day because no one wants them. Of course he also had something to say to those who complained ‘Why does this man offend against common sense and our sense of righteousness?’ ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’, but his primary mission was to preach God’s generosity and the free grace of salvation that gives offence to those who look for their security elsewhere.
Does that mean then that, where God is concerned, there is no such thing as recompense, duly earned and justly rendered? Does God never follow our logic and simply reward those who deserve a reward? In the New Testament in general, you will find some texts that speak of salvation as a matter of sheer grace, and others that see it as a reward. (And let us not forget the saying ‘He has passed to his eternal reward’, which has become part of the language of Catholic piety.) So I am not sure how to answer my own question. I personally do not feel I have ever done anything in my life that deserves God’s reward, and would rather think of Jesus’ saying in St Luke’s Gospel: ‘When you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We have only done what was our duty.”‘
I remember when I was in infants’ school, the parish priest was due to visit us, and the excellent Sister who taught us, never one to lapse into excessive hilarity, promised us a test the day before his visit, with the warning: ‘Now those of you who do well in the test will receive a holy picture from Father.’ General excitement, and universal longing (not least on my part) for that holy picture. We were each to recite by heart what we had learnt. On the day of the test all my class-mates tore through their assignments without a hiccup. When it came to my turn, and I remember not whether it was the Ten Commandments or the 12 times table; I only remember that I fell suddenly silent on the sixth; and no amount of racking of the brain or screwing of the face could elicit the magic answer from that abyss of ignorance. How I wept that night as that holy picture receded into infinity, and what shame, what deprivation awaited me next day. And when that day of wrath arrived, Father O’Dwyer (oh, how I remember that name!) duly began to distribute the holy pictures; and as my name was called I could see the excellent Sister whispering to Father with ashen countenance, no doubt telling him that I was the only one in the class to have failed. Then, fully briefed, Father O’Dwyer came slowly towards me; oh so slowly … and with a beaming smile of welcome and congratulations placed that longed-for picture on my sweaty palm to interior whoops of joy and gratitude on the part of its recipient.
It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that you experience more joy, and see more of God’s face, when you receive his gracious gift than when you receive his just reward. For a just reward separates you from the rewarder (‘Take what is yours, and go!’, the parable says); whereas an unexpected gracious gift unites you with the Giver forever, in joy and gratitude. The Kingdom of Heaven is like that.
Fr Tom Deidun