It Just Doesn’t Seem Fair
Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 20, 2020
The stories Jesus told were often comforting. At other times, they were challenging—forcing people to make some sort of decision or to look at some aspect of their lives in a new way. I must say that, of any of the stories Jesus told, this one has been the most difficult for me. And it is personal: I have experienced precisely this, what goes against a basic and profound sense of justice. At one of my summer jobs, I was put on an hourly rate. A friend of mine, because he had connections, was put on salary. That meant if the weather was bad and conditions did not allow other workers to come in, I still had to show up and do something else, while my friend could stay at home and still get paid! It just didn’t seem fair. And so it is with Jesus’ story: those who work only an hour get a full day’s pay, just like those who were there for the full day. And in the story they voice their complaint: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.”
Recently, I have started to make some sense of this story. Those who worked all day wanted everything to be based on strict justice. That is a good principle if you’re talking about labor and how employees are treated. But what if the story points to something else, something much deeper? What if the employer in the story stands for God, and we are the workers who will one day have to stand before him and give an accounting for our lives? Do we want the judgment to be based on a system of strict justice? Are we so sure about our character and conduct that we could pass any test whatever? Sounds pretty scary to me. After all, there are times when I haven’t listened to God, haven’t kept every commandment, haven’t pulled my weight. It is that awareness that makes me prefer a God who is compassionate and merciful, who realizes that we are frail, that we make mistakes, that like St. Paul, we know what we should do but at times don’t do it, and we know what we should not do, but at times we do it anyway! So I don’t want God to be a harsh judge who goes by the books. And thank God that Jesus is teaching in this story that God is compassionate and merciful, lavish in his generosity. The owner in the story asks the complainers: are you envious because I am generous? I think they would want God to be generous to them, but not to the losers of society, those at the bottom who rarely work, who rely on handouts. After all, they complain: “you have made them equal to us!”—the upright, the good people who have worked for everything we have. We keep your commandments, God: we’re your kind of people! We’re religious! You can’t be serious: making them equal to us!
Well, surprise, surprise! This is exactly what Jesus is doing. He’s not encouraging people to sin, that’s not it. But instead of putting people down and counting them out, as those religious leaders were doing, Jesus wants to lift them up and bring them in. And he’s saying to the upright: I’m not tossing you out. At the end of the day, you’re getting your pay; you’ll get your reward for all your hard work and dedication. But in my kingdom we’re not about tossing anybody aside, we’re not about labeling anybody a “loser”, we’re not considering anyone beyond redemption. We’re loving everybody, and especially the ones who need love the most. And by the way, everybody has one Father in heaven. That means they are your brothers and sisters, too.
Pope Francis has made one of the hallmarks of his papacy a crusade against what he describes as a “throwaway culture”. We live in a world where everything is seen as disposable, replaceable or temporary. We’re running out of places to put the junk we throw away. Dumps are full, so we’re floating trash out into the ocean. And we sometimes think of people as disposable, too. So Pope Francis asks us to go against this throwaway culture that wants more, more, more—bigger, better, faster, flashier—and to favor a sense of solidarity, of oneness, of protecting creation and our brothers and sisters, especially those who are weak, elderly and vulnerable. And Jesus even goes so far as to say, if you want to find me, go and encounter them: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you came to visit me” (see Matthew 25:31-46). Yes, I am making them equal to you, and what’s more, I’m making them your ticket to heaven.
So the story about the workers in the vineyard is indeed about something much more than labor. Through this story, Jesus is proclaiming that, with God, there is a different economy at work, a different idea of what matters. It’s not about the bottom line. Instead, it’s about not forgetting, abandoning or despising the people at the bottom. It’s about not feeling superior if we happen to be fortunate. And if it’s about justice, it is a justice that is based on and fulfilled in showing compassion and mercy, on our part, and on God’s. And unless we want to take a chance on pure justice as the basis for our judgment, we need to start showing compassion and mercy to those who are left out and shut out. It’s only fair.