During this Season of Creation, we join with Christians around the world to celebrate our calling to protect the Earth that God has entrusted to our care as stewards. Today’s Gospel sheds some light on a human tendency that contributes to our failure to be good stewards.
Jesus speaks this parable to his disciples as they struggle to understand the reign of God within the framework of the world in which they live. Like them, more often than not, we view the world, ourselves, and others through the lens of fairness rather than grace. We’ve been taught from an early age that fairness matters. Too often, however, fairness rather than love, acceptance, mercy, forgiveness, or generosity is the measure by which we act and judge another person or life circumstance. In contrast, grace is how God views the world and our lives.
We like fairness because it gives us some assurance of order, predictability, control, and hierarchy; even if it is a false assurance. Fairness is based on what you deserve, how hard you work, what you achieve. We live in and promote the framework of a wage based mentality in which you deserve the consequences, good or bad, of your actions. This attitude painfully unmasks the deep presuppositions that shape our lives and behaviors to such an extent that we cannot even imagine alternatives.
This parable is not about fair wage or just compensation for work. The workers’ complaint does not simply concern money but goes much deeper to what money represents. The real issue is superiority: “you have made them equal to us”(v.12), the first workers complain. That sense of superiority erases our oneness with each other and all of creation opening the door to exploitation and abuse. Rather than stewards, we see ourselves as the owners and masters.
That’s what happened to the first who were hired. They saw themselves as different from and more deserving than the later hired. The only thing that distinguishes the first hired and those who came later is that the first got what they bargained for. The later hired did not negotiate for the usual daily wage. They entered the vineyard trusting they would be paid “whatever is right” which was determined by the landowner. They received more than they earned or deserved because it’s not about fairness but about grace.
Wage and grace perspectives stand in opposition to each other as two opposing world views. The degree to which this parable strikes us as unfair is the degree to which our life and world view is wage based. Such a view allows little room for grace in our own lives or the lives of others. Grace is dangerous. It reverses business as usual. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” is not how a wage based society works. The world says the last are last and the first are first because they deserve it. It’s what’s fair. Our understanding of fairness, however, does not seem to have priority in the kingdom of God where grace is the rule not the exception. Grace looks beyond productivity, appearance, race, accomplishments, failures. Grace recognizes there is more to us than what we have done or left undone.
Grace reveals the goodness of God. Wages reveal human effort. Grace seeks unity and inclusion. Wages make distinctions and exclusions. Grace just happens. Wages are based on merit. The only precondition of grace is that we show up and open ourselves to receive what God is giving. When we do, we begin to see our lives, our world, our neighbor, and the whole creation differently.
Grace reminds us that we are not nearly as self-sufficient, deserving, or independent as a wage based society would like us to believe. The tragedy of a wage based life is that it blinds us to the presence of grace and makes us resentful of grace, generosity, and beauty. It separates and isolates us from others and creation causing us to set up standards and expectations not only for ourselves and others, but also for God.
How might we begin to be open to the way of grace? We might start by stopping to compare ourself and our life to others. We might make no judgments of ourself or others. We might refuse to compete in such a way that someone must lose for us to win. We might trust that in God’s world there is enough for everyone. We might let go of expectations of what is deserved. If we all let go of comparison, competition, expectation, and judgment, the world would be a new creation reflecting the reign of God.
This parable is essentially about the generosity of God, about learning to see everything through the eyes of God. The conclusion that “the last will be first and the first will be last” (v.16) is a call to humility—to living in the truth of who and what we are. We are the creature not the Creator. It is the great human temptation to confuse the two. The truth is that we are a part of a larger creation which sustains us. The Paschal mystery includes all of Creation: everything has been redeemed in the work of Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made (Jn. 1:3). Everything created by God reflects the presence of God. The earth, like us, breathes the breath of God.
May we be open through humility and grace to live that truth. +Amen.