The Stumbling Block of God’s Mercy
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) | Br Andrew Brookes invites us to rejoice in the awesome scale of God’s goodness.
Surely people do not reject God, or cool in their relationship with God, because they think God is too good, too generous, too merciful? One would probably think not, but actually it happens and today’s parable addresses some such situations.
To explore this I will first briefly explain aspects of employment practice in Palestine at the time of Jesus. Casual labourers were in an insecure position. There was lots of unemployment and no unemployment benefit. One denarius was the going rate for a day’s basic work and it would support a man and his family for a day, if not lavishly. The social agreement was that they be paid each evening. To be unable to earn it was to risk real hunger for you and your family that day or the next.
What we see at the beginning of the parable is a landowner acting conventionally and also justly. Those workers expect and get one denarius so why do they complain? They end up unhappy, losing much of the satisfaction that could have been derived from an honest day’s work justly rewarded.
The reason is linked to the landowner employing other people for less time, and given them the same sum. The first ones think they should be paid more. But it is not the mere fact of the landowner doing this that was the problem. It was the perspective and attitude they form in regard to it. They chose to compare themselves with those who have done less, are envious of them and think they deserve more, resent it and go away with less joy than those who worked less. As Jesus said, the last will be first, and the first last – here applied to joy. They could – and should – have seen the landowner’s initiative as a generous strategy to ensure that more people got what they needed to live on. At the heart of justice is giving each person their due. Seen properly, there is no real question of the landowner being unjust to those employed all day. Rather he has been just to the others, indeed more than just: he has been generous or merciful. They could have rejoiced in that, and been happier, not less happy, during the evening.
The parable has implications for how we view employment policies, salaries and for what sort of culture of work really promotes human dignity in our societies. However, Jesus is also addressing the fundamental issue of justice and mercy in our relationship with God, and that of others with God, and joy we find in it. The parable is about receiving, co-operating with, and rejoicing in the graces necessary for our eternal salvation.
To believe in Jesus and to love him by keeping his commands and by generous service of God and neighbour is to work for the Lord. There is – like secular work – great dignity and consolations in it here and now, and in the future it is rewarded. Its eternal reward at the end of life is the vision and life of God. God wants as many people to receive this gift, and so in this world, like the landowner who frequently goes to the market to find labourers, he ceaselessly, generously and mercifully calls us back to him.
Today’s parable invites us to recognise that what we have received from God, especially grace, is a gift. God does not need us, but is both just and generous to us. We are challenged not to commit the sin of envy of what others’ have, be it talents, money or leisure, and, added to that, resent God himself for his distribution of mercy and gifts, so poisoning our own relationship with God and reducing our love for God and neighbour. We are called to rejoice in the awesome scale of God’s goodness when we see God extend his gifts and mercy to others. To do so is to love. Not to do is to let our love cool. The Church teaches that although all in Heaven receive the vision of God – the ultimate denarius – those who have loved more on earth will appreciate and enjoy it more. So let us rejoice now in the goodness and mercy of God to us, trust in it, and also long, and even work, to see it extended to others.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a medieval stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral.