Scripture and the Liturgy

Is God Fair? 25th Sunday of OT

The Gospel Reading for this Lord’s Day raises the issue of the fairness of God.  Jesus, being a good teacher, wants his students to think.  He teaches in parables that—on the one hand—do indeed communicate truth and answer questions, but—on the other—do raise new, puzzling questions that require the student (disciple means student, after all) to exercise his or her mind. 

1.  Our First Reading emphasizes the distance between God’s perspective and ours:

Reading 1 Is 55:6-9

Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
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.

Sometimes this passage has been used to justify a distorted fideism (an overemphasis on faith that ignores reason and logic).  The fideist says: “Why try to understand God and his ways?  He’s incomprehensible.  We should just accept everything on faith.”

It’s true that understanding God poses difficulties, and that ultimately He is beyond what we can grasp with our rational faculties.  However, the incomprehensibility of God, ironically, makes sense.  We would not expect finite creatures to be able completely to comprehend an infinite, all-powerful, and all-wise being.  If God is really who and what we believe Him to be, we would expect there to be a cognitive gap between His reality and our understanding of Him.

Recognizing the gap between our understanding and the reality of God, the Church has nonetheless never advocated a dismissal of human reason from the life of faith.  It must always be “faith seeking understanding,” and St. John Paul II dedicated his famous encyclical Fides et Ratio precisely to this issue.

However, Isaiah 55:6-9 is not primarily making a philosophical argument about the intelligibility of the divine essence or actions.  If we examine the context, we see that the discourse concerns God’s mercy toward the undeserving.

Our Reading for today follows directly on that striking and beautiful passage in Isa 55:1-5, which promises a future experience in which the poor, hungry, and thirsty will be able to come to a free, divinely-provided banquet which will initiate them into the covenant God had made with David long ago.  The relationship of the meal imagery (vv. 1-3) to the Davidic covenant concepts (vv. 3-4) lies in this: meals were and are often used to solemnize covenant relationships (Gen 31:44,54; Exod 24:8-11).

This Lord’s Day Reading encourages everyone who hears this summons to the free, divine banquet (Isaiah 55:1-3) to take advantage of the offer of the New and Everlasting Covenant (Isa 55:3) while it is available.  Those who have rebelled against God and lived wickedly are encouraged to reverse direction and return to a God “who will abundantly pardon.”

It is in the context of forgiveness and mercy that our text says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts … my ways are above your ways.”

Our human perspective is usually tit-for-tat, quid-pro-quo, “don’t get mad, get even.”  Our human perspective would be, “I’ve lived my life shaking my fist at God, so if I turn back to him now, he’ll smack me a good one.”

A classic example of our human perspective is Carl Sagan’s piece in Parade magazine from many years ago now, when I was about twelve.  In one of America’s most-read magazines, America’s best-known astronomer took issue with the Golden Rule (!), arguing it was unworkable and impractical to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Instead, Sagan argued that his “Bronze Rule” was more practical: “do to others what they do to.”  If everyone lived by the Bronze Rule, he argued, that would actually be better for society.

I didn’t buy that argument when I was twelve, and still don’t buy it.  It seems too much like “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Sagan was promoting an all-too-human, limited moral vision.

In any event, our human “this-for-that” moral calculus is transcended by God’s “logic.”  He is more merciful, more forgiving, than we are towards each other.  In this sense, the message of Isa 55:6-9 is similar to the message of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross that we recently celebrated:  the Cross shows the paradoxical “logic” of God, who can turn human cruelty into divine mercy and forgiveness.

2.  This Sunday’s Responsorial echoes the self-revelation of God’s “Name” to Moses in Exod 34:6, where God revealed himself to be Mercy-in-Itself:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18

R. (18a) The Lord is near to all who call upon him.
Every day will I bless you,
and I will praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
R. The Lord is near to all who call upon him.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
R. The Lord is near to all who call upon him.
The LORD is just in all his ways
and holy in all his works.
The LORD is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.
R. The Lord is near to all who call upon him.

I can’t help mention, of course, how near the First Reading and the Psalm are to concepts of covenant and covenantal faithfulness.  We saw how our First Reading, in context, follows closely upon an offer of a new, gracious, eternal covenant in Isaiah 55:1-3, in which the hesed or “covenantal love” of the Davidic covenant will be extended to all the poor who answer God’s call (Isa 55:3).

Covenantal virtues of God are also extoled in Psalm 145, a Psalm that functions as a kind of preparation for the five “halleluiah” (Heb. “Praise” hallelu “the Lord” yah) Psalms with which the Psalter concludes.  So, by the time we reach Psalm 145, we are beginning to “wrap up” the book of Psalms by trying to take in the “big picture” of God in relationship to his people, and sum up the message of this entire collection of sacred poems.  So, to describe God’s character, the psalmist borrows from Exodus 34, saying that God is hΩannu®n and rahΩu®m, }erek≈ }appayim and g≈§d≈aœl-hΩaœsed≈:

hΩannu®n: “gracious,” from the root han, “grace” or “favor,” as in the names Hannah or John (from Yah-han, “the Lord’s grace”)

rahΩu®m: “compassionate,” a relatively uncommon word related to the term for “womb” (rehem), indicating a kind of visceral sympathy, like that of a mother who “feels” her child’s pain.

}erek≈ }appayim: literally “long of nose.”  Since the nose gets red when a person flies into a rage, the Hebrew language associates “nose” with “anger.”  We might say, “having a long fuse.”

g≈§d≈aœl-hΩaœsed”: “great of hesed”, our much-beloved term for covenant love.  I would like to quote the late, prolific theologian Fr. William Most on this term:

“Another example of the need of Hebrew [study] is the way the translations deal with Hebrew hesed. It means the bond between those who have made a covenant, such that each has rights and duties, and should act as kinsmen toward each other. (We can see an implication for the sprinkling of the blood in Exodus 24:8. It meant the people were becoming kinsmen of God). Unfortunately, Greek had no word for hesed. So they usually translated by eleos, which means mercy. There is partial truth in that translation. For if we ask why God gives good things under the covenant, the answer comes on two levels. On the most basic level, He made a covenant and gives things under it out of unmerited, unmeritable generosity. No creature by its own power can establish a claim on Him. All is basically mercy. Yet on the secondary level, given the fact that He did make a covenant, if the people do what He prescribed, He owes it to Himself to give favor (or punishment for disobedience). Incidentally, this twofold sense explains the difficult text of Romans 2:6 where Paul says God will repay each one according to his works. That is part of a quote from Psalm 62:12 which says, in the full text: “You, O God, have hesed, for you will repay each one according to his works.” Many English versions unfortunately render it to say: “You O Lord have mercy, for you will repay….” Mercy and repayment do not go together.

3.  The Second Reading proceeds lectio continua through Philippians, but providentially we find a connection with the theme of the Gospel:

Reading 2 Phil 1:20c-24, 27a

Brothers and sisters:
Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
If I go on living in the flesh,
that means fruitful labor for me.
And I do not know which I shall choose.
I am caught between the two.
I long to depart this life and be with Christ,
for that is far better.
Yet that I remain in the flesh
is more necessary for your benefit.

Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.

In a providential pun, St. Paul describes his life of ministry as “fruitful labor,” because he is, in a true sense, a faithful worker in the vineyard of the Lord, even one who has borne the heat of the day, although St. Paul would not be one to complain to receive the same “pay” as every other Christian.  In fact, he would rejoice if so many could share in the same “salary” from the Lord.

All Paul wants is Christ.  To live is Christ, and to depart this life means to be with Christ.  So “it’s all good.”  He’s not looking forward to some kind of material benefit or carnal pleasure in heaven as a pay-off, a kind of eternal free ticket to the heavenly Disney World because he “put his time in the trenches.”  No, Paul just wants communion with Christ.  That is quite a contrast to the Gospel parable, where the workers don’t want a relationship with the vineyard owner, they want more pay.

4.  And now, the Gospel:

Gospel Mt 20:1-16a

Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o’clock,
the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.’
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o’clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o’clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and ending with the first.’
When those who had started about five o’clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
‘These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
He said to one of them in reply,
‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The vineyard in this parable can be identified as “Israel,” based on Old Testament texts (Isa 5:1-7).  Jesus’ choice of twelve apostles makes clear that in his ministry he is establishing a New Israel, a new community of God’s people.  This community will consist as one people made up of both Jews and Gentiles (Matt 28:19; Eph 2:11-16).  This new community is the manifestation on earth of the Kingdom of God, and it is also the “vineyard” of this parable.  It comes to be called the ekklesia, the “gathering,” the Church.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard comes immediately after Peter’s request to know what the reward for the apostles will be (Matt 19:27).  Thus it can be interpreted as a warning against thinking of the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of personal reward: “What’s in it for me?”

In the first sense, then, the vineyard is God’s Kingdom on earth, in our own age manifested as the Church.  The workers in the vineyard are those the Lord calls to assist him in his labors: the apostles first, but in later generations their successors and others who work to “cultivate” and care for God’s Kingdom.  A secondary application can be made to all Christians, for we are all called to care for and cultivate the Kingdom manifest as the Church, even if the only member of that body we ever are able to “help” or “cultivate” is our own self.

The message of the parable then is clear: all who are called to work with the Lord to care for his Kingdom will receive the same reward: the “denarius” (“usual wage” in our Mass translation).

The Fathers generally held that this “denarius” represents eternal life, the basic “pay” of all who heed the Master’s call to come into his vineyard.  All workers will receive this reward equally.

The parable then seems at odds with other parables and teachings that suggest a distinction of greater and lesser reward in the next life (Luke 19:11-27; 1 Cor 3:14-15).  How can both perspectives be accurate?  And can it be fair of God to reward equally different levels of service?

St. Thomas actually addresses precisely this issue, and the text of this parable, in the Summa I–II, Q.5, Art.2 (“Whether one man may be happier than another.”)  St. Thomas answer is that, while God gives the same objective gift to each of the elect (eternal life), nonetheless there is a diversity in the subjective enjoyment of that gift.  In other words, heaven is granted to everyone who is in Christ, but the more virtuous will derive greater pleasure from it.

Who are the grumbling workers who bore the heat of the day and are dissatisfied with the pay?

In one sense, they may represent any Christian who misconstrues the nature of the vineyard, the nature of the Lord, and the purpose for their labor.

This first wave of workers has a legalistic conception of their relationship with the Lord.  They bargained and agreed on a certain reward for a certain amount of work.

The workers called later are working on trust.  They have no contract with the Lord.  The simply have faith that the Lord will indeed give them a salary that “is just.”  They must believe that the Lord is a man of his word; they have faith in him.

The first wave of workers also fail to see that it is a privilege to work in the vineyard, and take part in the labor of the Lord.  Being in the vineyard means being close to the Lord of the vineyard; this in itself is a privilege.  They should be glad that more workers have come (see Matt 9:37-38).  Their joy should increase that others, even though lately come, can share the same joy they experience (see John 4:36; 1 John 1:3-4). 

In sum, the first wave of workers are persons who heed God’s call but just don’t understand God’s self-giving nature, and haven’t assimilate that nature within themselves.  God’s thoughts (especially of mercy and grace) are far above their thoughts.  If they really understood the nature of the Lord of the vineyard, they would have been overjoyed that so many could share in the same reward they themselves received.  Let’s not be like them.  Let’s rejoice that we have a gracious God overflowing in grace and mercy, and let’s imitate his character in our own lives.

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