I sometimes think that the parables enjoy a popularity that may be misplaced. By this I do not mean to question their extraordinary composition or their radical religious message. It is just that we may be identifying with the wrong person and then might miss the really subversive flavor of the story. The parable in today’s Gospel dispels any doubt about the challenge always placed before us by these remarkable accounts.
We might find this parable disturbing because we identify ourselves with those “who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” I am sure we want God to be generous with all, but many of us might expect God’s generosity to be proportionate to the duration and quality of one’s commitment. But this parable shows that the criterion by which God operates is not the standard that most women and men might follow. According to human standards, our generous God does not seem to be fair. (Notice how I have hedged this statement: Our generous God does not seem to be fair.) We have learned that God is all-knowing, all-loving, all-just, all-everything-that-is-good, etc. Therefore, we are afraid to suggest that God might not be fair. We are afraid that this might be a kind of blasphemy. But then, how is this parable to be understood?
Perhaps we should understand it as a concrete example of what is found in the last lines of today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah:
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 prophet very clearly states that we simply cannot understand God or the ways of God. In fact, even our best theological statements can lead to misunderstanding. This limitation calls to mind the negative way of speaking of God developed in the theology of the Eastern Church. Called apophatic, it explicitly acknowledges the inadequacy of the human mind to grasp the things of God. Does this then strip the parables of their religious value? Certainly not! But it does remind us that even the parables of Jesus can provide only glimpses of the ways of God. And even when they do this, they might very well, if taken too literally, misrepresent another aspect of the divine reality. They are, after all, merely human compositions.
What then is the point of today’s parable? It clearly states that people are called by God at different times during their lifetime. We know from experience that this is a fact, and so we can accept it as true. The parable also says that those who respond positively to this call from God are promised “what is just.” Again, this flows from an understanding of God that we have come to know, and so we can accept it as well. But then the parable turns our understanding of fairness upside down. Yet this is what makes it so powerful! It appears to tell us something about God, when in fact it may be revealing our own arrogance and selfishness.
Perhaps we are understanding the story from the wrong perspective. If we identify with those “who bore the day’s burden and the heat,” in other words, those who deserve “what is just,” we may be troubled by God’s generosity. In fact, we might even be tempted to judge this generosity as unfair. If we identify with the undeserving ones, however, those who may even be an afterthought, we will be thrilled with the divine generosity. What, after all, makes us identify with one group rather than another?
Divine generosity is always a scandal to people who believe that it should only be granted to those who deserve it. And it is in this conviction that their error is laid bare, for no one deserves the generosity of God. It is a free gift, given to all who will accept it. If we think we deserve it, we will resent those who in our judgment do not. It is arrogant to think that we have earned it; it is selfish to want to hug it to ourselves.
In today’s short passage from Philippians, Paul displays remarkable unselfishness toward others. He is certainly one “who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” Yet, for the sake of others, he is willing to remain working in the vineyard. He knows the generosity of God, and he decides to continue to act as an agent of that generosity as long as he is able.
The reign of God is a reign of divine generosity. We are invited to participate in it. If God invites others, we should be happy that they join us. Divine generosity is not a limited commodity. Their enjoyment will take nothing from ours. On the contrary, if we truly share in the generosity of God, their enjoyment will enhance ours.