“ARE YOU ENVIOUS BECAUSE I AM GENEROUS?”
- There was a guy who died and was being given a tour of heaven, and he saw a friend of his drive by in a beautiful Mercedes. He said, “Boy, this is great!”
“Oh, yes,” St. Peter said, “your friend was really generous on earth; we had a lot to work with. Your transportation up here depends on your generosity down there.” Then St. Peter gave him his transportation: a Honda motor scooter.
He said, “Wait a minute, he gets a Mercedes, and I get a scooter?”
“That’s right, it’s all we had to work with.” So the guy drove off in a huff.
A week later Peter saw this guy all smiles and said, “You feeling better now?”
The guy said, “Yea, I have ever since I saw my preacher go by on a skateboard!”
A life of generosity reflects God’s nature in a special way. Surely, God is just; but He is also outrageously generous and merciful at the same time. We do not get what we deserve. Rather God gives us more than we deserve. Today, He calls each one of us to be a generous people.
Today is the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time and we continue reflecting upon the meaning of Christian discipleship. The dominant theme of the Scripture Readings of today is that God is outrageously generous and merciful, and that His wisdom surpasses our human categories of value and judgment.
“THE LORD IS GENEROUS AND FORGIVING.”
In the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Isaiah exhorts the people of Israel, returned from exile in Babylon, to actively search for the Lord who is abundantly merciful and outrageously generous. He tells them to seek the Lord while He may be found and to call Him while He is near. Dispirited by the experience of a devastated homeland, they have become weary of their faith and their vaunted heritage. Isaiah tells them that they have abandoned God, God has not abandoned them. They wanted to repay their enemies for the losses inflicted on them, but the Lord was for mercy. They wanted vengeance, but the Lord is generous in forgiving. And yet, this Lord is near to them. He urges them to surrender their petty ambitions and selfish dreams, and to forsake their wicked ways and to turn to the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. He further reminds them that the Lord’s thoughts and His ways are not obvious – they are unfathomable; His willingness to redeem the people exceeds their ability to grasp it. That is to say that the glory of God’s generosity and forgiveness is beyond comprehension and it calls for a response from the people in the form of a return to covenant fidelity.
“FOR TO ME LIFE IS CHRIST, AND DEATH IS GAIN.”
St. Paul is a privileged example of the laborer of the ‘last hour’ who benefited from the abundant riches of God’s grace. A persecutor of Christian faith, he was converted and experienced the undeserved free bounty of God. He is a model of a true response to Divine love radically revealed in Jesus Christ. In today’s Second Reading from his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul is writing to the Philippians from a prison in Ephesus. Awaiting a possible death sentence, he reflects that for him both life and death take their meaning from Christ. He asserts that with his whole being, he would bring honor to Christ, whether he lived or died. So to St. Paul, simply speaking, ‘to live is Christ,’ in this life, and yet ‘to die is gain,’ because he is confident that he will enjoy that life with unassailable permanence after his death. He is so convinced of God’s generosity that he can’t see any other possibility. He believes that what Jesus achieved when he died and rose from the dead was so great that nothing could block its effects. To continue to live in this world, however, would mean a more fruitful labor for the Gospel. This would benefit more greatly the community of faith and encourage them to live a life worthy of the Gospel. Having been evangelized and brought under the power of the Gospel, they are to reflect in their life their belonging to Christ.
THE PARABLE OF THE LABORERS IN THE VINYARD:
In the Gospel Reading of today from St. Matthew, we hear Jesus telling his disciples ‘the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.’ This is one of the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is found only in the Gospel of St. Matthew. In the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable that compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a generous landowner who hires laborers at different hours throughout the day for his vineyard. The parable is not about fair or unfair compensation, but it is about generosity. At the end of the day, the landowner pays them all a day’s wage as agreed. Jesus cleverly puts this twist in the parable in order to show us the sharp contrast between God’s justice and human justice; between God’s ways and our ways.
a) “Why do you stand here idle all day?”
The Parable of the laborers in the Vineyard begins with a landowner going out to hire some men to labor in his vineyard. During the time of Jesus, people who desired work went to the public square early in the morning. Those in need of laborers went there to hire those they needed. This was what the landowner in the parable did. Picking the most skilled to work in his vineyard and their wage was agreed upon – ‘the usual daily wage.’ The landowner went out again at nine o’clock, at noon and at three o’clock in the afternoon. Each time the landowner promised to pay them ‘what is just.’ Going out before dark, at about five o’clock, the land owner found others standing around and asked them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” And when they said that because no one hired them, he just told them to go to his vineyard and work and he made no mention of money to the last lot. They were idle, not because of laziness but because no one wanted to employ them. The parable in general seems to put a value on work and on the right to work.
b) “Summon the laborers and give them their pay.”
At the end of the day the landowner said to his foreman, “Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.” Surprise, surprise! The last lot, the five o’clock crowd got ‘a full day’s wages.’ They didn’t complain! Usually they don’t get much generosity. So, they kept quiet when it happened. Then the others, including the all-day group, were paid. They expected to be paid more, but they too were paid the same amount. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, for, they thought ‘injustice’ was done to them. The landowner of the vineyard may have caused dissatisfaction among those who worked longer hours, but he also brought joyful surprise to those who worked later in the day. Instead of grumbling against the landowner, couldn’t those who have worked longer rejoice with their co-workers’ good fortune?
c) “Are you envious because I am generous?”
This parable is actually once again talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. To understand this, we need to consider the question Jesus asked, “Are you envious because I am generous?” The parable is not primarily about justice though it is included – the landowner had complied with the agreed upon daily wage for those hired first – but about something beyond justice, namely, the love, goodness and generosity of God, even and specially for latecomers in the Kingdom. In the parable God is actually the landowner, we are the laborers and the day’s wage is eternal life in heaven. Surely, God is not unjust or unfair, but He is also generous, compassionate and merciful and His thoughts and ways are different from that of the world. He is generous in opening the doors of His Kingdom to all who will enter – both those who have labored a life time for Him and those who came at the last hour, and giving them all the same reward of eternal life.
This parable of Jesus invariably involves a shocking ‘twist’ which challenges conventional wisdom and invites the listener to re-think reality in an entirely new way. The reality portrayed in the parable is what Jesus calls ‘God’s reign,’ and it requires of us listeners a decision to be part of that kind of world.
d) “Thus, the last will be first , and the first will be last.”
The parable ends with Jesus saying, “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” In the Kingdom of Heaven justice and fairness do not follow worldly values. Here, everything is done by grace and not by merit. The righteousness we have developed in the world will not bind God in the Kingdom of Heaven. We learn from the Gospel of today that God does not call everybody at the same time. Truly, the righteousness of the Lord is not the righteousness of man. The Lord God gives to those that He pleases in the amount that He chooses. He is free to do what He wants with what belongs to Him, namely His grace. The Lord God is just and fair in all His dealings and no one will ever go unrewarded for his works that are accredited to him. Our work, if truly done for the love of God and for the salvation of others, is rewarded by the latecomers’ entrance into the Kingdom. And that is our wage.
e) The Kingdom of Heaven seen as the Family of God:
The notion of the Kingdom of Heaven as a ‘Family of God’ is central to understanding this parable. We know that the Kingdom of Heaven is the Reign of God; it is the Rule of God; but in fact it is the Family of God, in which God is the Father and all human beings are his children, and hence brothers and sisters to one another. The values of the Kingdom of Heaven are love & joy, care & concern, peace & justice, freedom & equality, mercy & forgiveness, compassion & generosity, and so on and so forth.
So, let us now take the case of a family. Growing up in a large, traditional, farming family has its advantages. When the crop is ready for harvest, the whole family is out in the field working together. They do not work at the same pace. Dad and big brother would be in the field very early while little sister is still asleep. Mom and little sister would join them in the farm later. You see, dad and big brother go to work without breakfast but little sister would not go anywhere without breakfast. When she finally arrives in the farm she is more interested in asking silly questions and distracting the workers than in the work itself. At the end of the day all go home happy together. Supper is prepared and served. Does anyone suggest that you eat as much as you have worked? Not at all! Often the same little sister who did the least work is pampered with the best food. Yet no one complains, no one is jealous, and everyone is happy.
That is to say that if we see ourselves as a family with a common purpose and not as a bunch of individuals with different agendas, then there will not be any complains or grumbling or jealousy over the reward of each one of us.
The Scripture Readings of today present to us a consoling picture of Divine goodness, generosity and love. Equality, as we understand it, may convey justice. But it is goodness, generosity and love as personified by Jesus himself that enable us to go beyond justice and share with those who are marginal, unfortunate and abandoned members of society. And lest we forget, even these virtues are gifts from God. In fact, there is nothing that we are and have that has not come from God. We cannot be envious or jealous because God is generous to someone else. His divine freedom sometimes sets aside our human expectations in a display that results in a God of surprises. Today’s Gospel parable also tells us of the tender compassion of God. A person out of work is a tragic figure and all the late comers wanted some opportunity to work and God out of his generosity gives it.
Today, God calls each one of us to be a generous people. We know forgiveness is hard, but we see that real generosity is even harder than forgiveness. Generosity is a fight with human nature, with what we like to call fairness, but which can often turn into an angry resentment – not resentment against injustice, but against the grace God throws around however God wants to. When it happens to us, we praise God for his grace to us and our families. When it happens to someone else, as often as not, we get out the calculator.
Finally, we all are welcome to the Kingdom of Heaven; where new comers belong; where the last are first and the excluded are included; because God’s thoughts not our thoughts. God’s standards are not our standards. The readings of this Sunday, especially the Gospel, invite us to reflect on God’s generous love, mercy and justice for all people without exception. That is God’s standard that will be applied at the end of time. And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.