This is a straightforward story that has a jarring end; we are left wondering how the vineyard owner represents the God of love and fair play we take for granted. Day labourers were common in Jesus’ time, as they are today in American cities where unemployed immigrants depend on getting a day’s work whenever they can. I used to see them at a busy corner in the Mission district of San Francisco waiting for a driver to stop and hire them for the day. I wondered about the condition of their families and whether they were paid properly. Jesus’ parable sounds like an ordinary story until we come to the end: the final payment and the reason offered for the upset of the early workers.
A key to understanding the parable lies in today’s reading from Isaiah: My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways – it is the Lord who speaks. Parables are meant to be insights into the often paradoxical workings of the kingdom of God. They take us by surprise and turn upside down our preconceived ideas. We expect people to be paid a just and satisfying wage. So we can easily sympathise with the early workers who were upset. The situation appears to be unjust and inhuman; the labour of the early workers was degraded. Were they right to complain? What kind of God does the vineyard owner represent? “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius?”
These words of the vineyard owner challenge us to revisit our concept of justice, even our traditional assumptions about God. Our human justice doesn’t correspond to divine justice. Our ways are not God’s ways. Divine justice appears in human terms as generosity, and divine generosity likewise translates as mercy. The parable invites us to think outside the traditional religious box and to marvel at God’s ways. The Lord is kind and full of compassion, slow to anger, abounding in love….He is just in all his ways and loving in all his deeds – Psalm 144. St Paul reminds us that God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy, raising us from death to a new kind of life – Ephesians 2: 4-10.
At the end of the day as the workers are being paid, we get a glimpse of the futility of human ways. Jesus came to replace traditional religion with an alternative: I am the way, the truth and the life. My way is the only way worth living. I am the one and only true reality. My ways and my kingdom are not of this world. ‘Mine is an eternal and universal kingdom; a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace’ – (Preface at Mass for Christ the King). My friend, I’m not being unjust to you. Why be envious because I am generous? The day labourers were typical of the old world that Jesus came to replace. Paul had a taste of the new world of the kingdom when he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and couldn’t wait to experience it completely: “I want to be gone and be with Christ” he tells us today in the second reading.
Fr QQ – 09/18/2023

Nothing so masks the face of God as religion – Martin Buber.


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