At dawn and throughout the day, the owner of a vineyard hires workers. They reach an agreement about wages; and the workers go out into the vineyard to do the work. About five o’clock, merely one hour before the end of the workday, the owner hires the last workers. To the surprise of all, he gives the last ones hired a full-day’s wage. Those hired first think they will receive more, and grumble when they are paid the agreed-upon wage. The owner of the vineyard responds: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
The unredeemed situation represented by the resentment of the workers about the vineyard owner’s generosity is essentially similar to our own experience. It is the human tendency to impose our way of thinking upon God. Warning against this form of idolatry, making a god in our image and likeness, is apparent through the entire biblical narrative. Think, for example, of Job’s friends who could not imagine that God might not be defined by their quite orthodox theology. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is 55:8).
Jesus in his parable is certainly not abrogating the valid and necessary principles of justice. Rather he is giving us an opportunity to grasp that God’s nature is to be extravagantly generous, beyond the rational rules of exchange. How do you find parables to suggest the possibility of love to someone who has never experienced a relationship beyond that of a business contract? I recall struggling to find helpful analogies (parables) when asked by a friend, blind from birth, to explain the difference in feeling between seeing red and blue.
Jesus himself is the best parable of the extravagantly generous God. He makes far too much wine at the Cana wedding; far too much bread for the hungry crowd; he tells a story about forgiving a debt far too large ever to be paid; and he tells us to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven. And as the ultimate revelation of extravagant affection, he willingly gives up his life for us on a cross. Paul refers to “Christ crucified” as foolishness to human wisdom (1 Cor 1:22-25).
The good news of the gospel is that we share the extravagantly generous Spirit of Jesus. Sometimes we too can act with extravagant generosity, beyond the rational rules of justice. God’s kingdom is meant to be a new order of grace. Isn’t there always something unexpected and wonderful about a gift of love, even a kind word? A gift is never earned in the way that a wage is earned, and expected.
Apparently, Jesus does not want a church of J. Aldred Prufrocks, people carefully measuring out their lives with coffee spoons (T.S. Eliot’s image).
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.