Some years ago, I had to attend the wedding of a relative in another country and the group of invitees to the wedding dinner was rather large. When the time came for dinner to begin, the emcee asked everyone to make a line for the buffet meal that was being served. Naturally, some rushed to get ahead of the line while people like me and my family members took some time to get to the line. Once we were in line, I noticed that there were many others who were jumping queue to get in front of the line and because I was only a guest and not the host, I wasn’t able to say anything or even kick up a fuss. I am sure that my experience is not unique and that many others may have had similar experiences and felt it was “unfair”.
The reaction of the servants that were hired first in today’s gospel is not something out of the ordinary. To have been given the same wage as the one who arrived last and worked the least number of hours would have moved anyone to shout out, unfair! Reading the gospel today only at its surface level will certainly raise questions about fairness, just wages, and even selective preference… all of which must have concerned Jesus. However, the parable was not intended to address these issues even though some have in the past used this passage to address such issues.
The focus of this parable is neither on the quantum received nor on how unfair the landowner had been – it is about the kingdom of Heaven. In fact, it is about God’s choice to be generous according to the values of the kingdom. The way God chooses to act cannot be confined to the framework of our human thinking processes. In the way we think, more work equals more pay and less work means less pay. That is why this parable would seem to defy human logic.
Looking deeper into the parable we begin to understand what Jesus intended to demonstrate is that all believers, especially those who were struggling to accept or even integrate the Gentile converts into their communities, that no matter how long or how hard anyone worked during this lifetime, will receive the same basic reward – eternal life. Whether converted early in life or later, all are awarded the generous and equal gift of eternal life.
There are times when we want to humanise God in the way we think of Him and expect Him to act but the reality is that God transcends human thinking and acting. Even though God is described to us through human words, we must remember that He transcends our language, so anything we say or even try to describe about Him is utterly inadequate. That is why St Thomas Aquinas once said, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
The generosity of God is one such attribute of God that escapes our understanding. Even to the repentant thief on the cross, Jesus offered him the gift of paradise. God’s value system is far different from earth’s value system as we have just heard in today’s parable. Fair or unfair, first or last, is entirely up to God’s generosity and we cannot bind Him to act in the way we would expect or want Him to. The gift of eternal life belongs to God and God alone chooses to whom He wishes to give it to.
Therefore, let us not frown on people whom we think do not merit God’s love or even the gift of salvation because they may be the very ones that God choses to love and redeem in an inclusive way because they too are His children. “Intense love does not measure, it just gives” (Mother Teresa) Amen.