‘It’s not fair, he’s got a bigger slice than I have.’‘It’s not fair, she’s got more!’ ‘It’s not fair, I wanted the blue one!’
Cries of childhood echo in my head. The parable of the workers in the vineyard tells of a group of workers some of whom have worked all day, others for part of the day, and a few for just an hour. At the end of the day the owner pays each of them the same amount. The ones who worked all day feel, understandably, that ‘it’s not fair’. The owner of the vineyard was quite just in giving them what had been agreed at the beginning of the day. And still, there’s something about it ....
Most of us will feel that the ones who worked all day have a point. The ones who came later were actually paid more per hour of work. How galling for the first group to hear the owner pointing out that he was being perfectly fair, knowing that, strictly speaking, he was, but at the same time feeling hard done by.
It is very difficult to combine justice and mercy. As we understand and experience them they seem to be incompatible. How can you be completely just while showing mercy (because mercy sounds to us like ‘letting someone off’, ‘agreeing to overlook something’ or even ‘letting someone get away with something’). How can you show mercy and still be strictly just (because not to insist on one’s rights, or not to insist on what we are owed, sounds like a decision to forego justice).
The same problem comes up in the story of the prodigal son where the older brother feels that the younger one is getting away with so much, having a great old time in another country, wasting his inheritance, and then coming home to be received like a long lost crown prince instead of the irresponsible wastrel that he was. Matthew’s parable of the workers in the vineyard deals with the same issues as Luke’s parable of the prodigal son.
What issues? Well, in the context in which Jesus first told these stories, the main issue was the reaction of the Pharisees and others to the fact that he was welcoming sinners and eating with them. The Pharisees are the ones who have laboured all day in the Lord’s vineyard, the sinners are the ones wandering in when the day is nearly over. Or the Jews are the ones who have laboured all day — they have been God’s people from centuries back — while the pagans are the ones wandering in late in the day. This was the import of Jesus’ preaching, linked especially with his frequent assertion that he had come not for the healthy but for the sick.
So a first question is whether we think of ourselves as sick or healthy. In relation to God, do we regard ourselves as belonging with the righteous who have been working hard all these years or do we feel that we belong with sinners who are today given the re-assuring message that ‘it’s never too late’? Today's gospel challenges us in different way, depending on whether we position ourselves among the sick or the healthy.
A second question is how we regard other people, especially those whom we might think of as having wandered away from God, and from the ways of goodness. What if they return, even at the very end? Is it a cause of rejoicing for us, a joy we share with them, or do we feel a bit peeved that they’ve got away with so much, and feel like crying out to God that ‘it’s not fair’?
Part of envy is the feeling of exclusion from what another person is enjoying. But the gifts of God are not like other kinds of gifts. As children we knew very well that the more the cake and chocolate was divided the less there was for each one. With God’s gifts — grace, compassion, love, mercy — the more they are divided the more they increase because each one who truly receives these gifts of God and understands their meaning becomes in their turn a source of grace, compassion, love, and mercy in the world.
We cannot get our minds and hearts around God’s ways so as to contain or comprehend them. ‘God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts not our thoughts’, says Isaiah. As high as the heavens are above the earth so high are God's ways and thoughts above human ways and thoughts. And how high is that? The mind boggles, and modern science makes it boggle even more. As creatures we can be said to be like God but God is not like us as so many passages in the Bible teach us. Today's parable provokes us into considering just one aspect of this infinite distance. Our standards of fairness and reasonable dealing are turned on their heads the more we enter into the world of God, the more we contemplate the mystery of his love, the more we try to live according to his spirit. ‘The last will be first, and the first, last.’ Only love can teach us the truth of this paradox, that God's unfairness is more just than human justice.