The two great attributes of God in the Bible are justice and mercy. Today’s responsorial psalm reminds us that “the Lord is just in all his ways.” But we also hear that “the Lord is gracious and merciful,” and the reading from Isaiah 55 urges us to “turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.” Is there any coherence or consistency between these statements about God? Today’s parable from Matthew 20 about the generous employer and the various persons hired to work in his vineyard concerns the relationship between God’s justice and God’s mercy. The point is that while God is both just and merciful, God’s mercy can and often does override or trump God’s justice.
Jesus lived most of his life in Galilee, the northern part of Israel, where agriculture was (and still is) a major occupation. Many workers were hired by the day, in keeping with the employer’s needs. During harvest time landowners needed a great deal of help, while at other times a prospective worker could stand around all day and not be hired. The scene presupposed in this parable would have been very familiar to Jesus’ audience.
That a landowner should hire people to work for the day in his vineyard is not surprising. That he should hire them at such different times of the day—dawn, 9 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m.—is mildly surprising. But obviously he wants to finish the work that day, so he keeps on hiring workers. What is startling is that he pays all the workers the same salary. Those hired late in the day, we can be sure, were pleasantly surprised, and so they marvel at the landowner’s generosity. But those hired at dawn become angry and grumble about what they regard as the landowner’s injustice. The landowner defends his practice by reminding the grumblers that he has given them what they agreed to—“the usual daily wage” or “what is just” (that is, a denarius). He ends the controversy with a question intended to silence the grumblers: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15).
One of the persistent complaints against Jesus by his opponents was that he reached out to marginal persons, proclaiming to them the mercy of God and promising them entrance into God’s kingdom. The tax collectors and sinners were like those hired at 5:00 p.m., whereas the religiously observant (the scribes and Pharisees) were like those hired at dawn. The opponents reasoned that according to their vision of God’s justice, they should receive a greater reward than the latecomers. Should the former get any reward at all? Should they get the same reward as those who toiled all day? Was Jesus so emphasizing God’s mercy that he was neglecting God’s justice?
The point of the parable of the generous employer is that eternal life in God’s kingdom is a sufficiently abundant reward for everyone. In that respect God is just. And God wants everyone to enjoy that reward. It is never too late; there is always hope, even for latecomers. In that respect God is also merciful.
The parable reminds us that what is at issue here is admission to God’s kingdom, which is God’s gift to give. What those hired early really object to is not the landowner’s injustice but rather his generosity. They need to learn that God’s kingdom is the favor of God freely given, that the fullness of God’s kingdom is enough for everyone, and that each of us will find perfect satisfaction with whatever God may give us.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” These words from the book of Isaiah (55:8) remind us that we should not always judge God according to our own limited human perspective of justice. Nor should we always expect God to act according to human standards and rules. The God revealed in Jesus’ life and teaching is both merciful and just. He gives to us all what is due to us. But he is generous and compassionate to those who need it most. The God who is just in all his ways and holy in all his works is also gracious and merciful.
Paul’s words from prison (“to me life is Christ, and death is gain,” Phil 1:21) express perfectly the attitude of one who already lives in God’s kingdom, and whose faith and hope make him fearless in the face of death. Perhaps more than any other biblical writer, Paul understood correctly the mercy of God and its relation to the justice of God.