Friday, September 16, 2011

Is God Fair? The Readings for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The Gospel Reading for this Lord’s Day raises the issue of the fairness of God.  Jesus, being a good teacher, wants his students to think.  He teaches in parables that—on the one hand—do indeed communicate truth and answer questions, but—on the other—also raise new, puzzling questions that require the student (discipulus means student, after all) to expend some mental energy. 

Our First Reading emphasizes the distance between God’s perspective and ours:

Reading 1 Is 55:6-9
Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked his thoughts;
let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.

Sometimes this passage has been used to justify a distorted fideism.  "Why try to understand God and his ways?  He’s incomprehensible.  We should just accept everything on faith."

It’s true that understanding God poses difficulties, and that ultimately He is beyond what we can grasp with our rational faculties.  However, the incomprehensibility of God, ironically, makes sense.  We would not expect finite creatures to be able completely to comprehend an infinite, all-powerful, and all-wise being.  If God is really who and what we believe Him to be, we would expect there to be a cognitive gap between His reality and our understanding of Him.

Recognizing the gap between our understanding and the reality of God, the Church has nonetheless never advocated a dismissal of human reason in the life of faith.  We must always practice “faith seeking understanding,” and Blessed John Paul II dedicated his famous encyclical Fides et Ratio precisely to this issue.

However, Isaiah 55:6-9 is not primarily making a philosophical argument about the intelligibility of the divine essence or mind.  If we examine the context, we see that the discourse concerns God’s mercy toward the undeserving.

Our First Reading for today follows directly on that striking and beautiful passage of Isaiah (Isa 55:1-5) which promises a future experience in which the poor, hungry, and thirsty will be able to come to a free, divinely-provided banquet which will communicate to them the covenant God had made with David long ago.  The relationship of the meal imagery (vv. 1-3) to the Davidic covenant concepts (vv. 3-4) lies in this: meals were often used to solemnize covenant relationships (Gen 31:44,54; Exod 24:8-11).

Today’s Reading encourages everyone who hears this summons to the free, divine banquet (Isaiah 55:1-3) to take advantage of the offer while it is available.  Those who have rebelled against God and lived wickedly are encourage to reverse direction and return to a God “who will abundantly pardon.”

It is in this context of forgiveness and mercy that our text says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts ... my ways are above your ways.”

Our human perspective is usually tit-for-tat, quid-pro-quo, “don’t get mad, get even.”  Our human perspective would be, “I’ve lived my life with my fist against God, so if I turn back to him now, he’ll smack me a good one.”

A classic example of our human perspective is a famous essay by Carl Sagan  in Parade Magazine from many years ago now, when I was about twelve.  In one of America’s most-read magazines, America’s best known astronomer took on the Golden Rule, argued it was unworkable and impractical, and proposed instead his “Bronze Rule”: do to others what they do to you.  If everyone lived by the Bronze Rule, Sagan argued, that would actually be better for society.

Thanks for that, Carl.  

I didn’t realize that a Ph.D. in Astronomy also made one an expert in ethics, theology, and sociology.

In any event, our human “this-for-that” moral calculus is transcended by God’s “logic.”  He is more merciful, more forgiving, than we are towards each other.  In this sense, the message of Isa 55:6-9 is similar to the message of last week’s Parable of the Unmerciful Servant:  “I, God, am far more forgiving of your offenses against me, than you are forgiving of offenses amongst yourselves.”

This Sunday’s Responsorial is very similar to last weeks (Ps 103).  Again, verse 8 of the Psalm echoes the self-revelation of God’s “Name” to Moses (Exod 34:6), revealing himself to be Mercy in Itself:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
R. (18a) The Lord is near to all who call upon him.
Every day will I bless you,
and I will praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
R. The Lord is near to all who call upon him.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
R. The Lord is near to all who call upon him.
The LORD is just in all his ways
and holy in all his works.
The LORD is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.
R. The Lord is near to all who call upon him.

The Second Reading proceeds lectio continua through Philippians, but providentially we find a connection with the theme of the Gospel:

Reading 2 Phil 1:20c-24, 27a
Brothers and sisters:
Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
If I go on living in the flesh,
that means fruitful labor for me.
And I do not know which I shall choose.
I am caught between the two.
I long to depart this life and be with Christ,
for that is far better.
Yet that I remain in the flesh
is more necessary for your benefit.

Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.

In a providential pun, St. Paul describes his life of ministry as “fruitful labor,” because he is, in a true sense, a faithful worker in the vineyard of the Lord, even one who has borne the heat of the day, although St. Paul would not be one to complain to receive the same “pay” as every other Christian.  In fact, he would rejoice if so many could share in the same “salary” from the Lord.

And now, the Gospel:

Gospel Mt 20:1-16a
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o'clock,
the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.'
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o'clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o'clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
'Why do you stand here idle all day?'
They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.'
He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.'
When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
'Summon the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and ending with the first.'
When those who had started about five o'clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
'These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day's burden and the heat.'
He said to one of them in reply,
'My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?'
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."

The vineyard in this parable can be identified as “Israel,” based on Old Testament texts (Isa 5:1-7).  But Jesus’ choice of twelve apostles makes clear that he is establishing a New Israel, a new community of God’s people.  This community will consist as one people made up of both Jews and Gentiles (Matt 28:19; Eph 2:11-16).  This new community is the manifestation on earth of the Kingdom of God, and it is also the “vineyard” of this parable.  It is the Church.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard comes immediately after Peter’s request to know what reward the apostles themselves will receive (Matt 19:27).  Thus it can be interpreted as a warning against thinking of the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of personal reward: “What’s in it for me?”

In the first sense, then, the vineyard is God’s Kingdom on earth, in our own age manifested as the Church.  The workers in the vineyard are those the Lord calls to assist him in his labors: the apostles first, but in later generations their successors and others who work to “cultivate” and care for God’s Kingdom.  A secondary application can be made to all Christians, for we are all called to care for and cultivate the Kingdom manifest as the Church, even if the only member of that body we ever “help” or “cultivate” is our own self.

The message of the parable then is clear: all who are called to work with the Lord to care for his Kingdom will receive the same reward: the “denarius” (“usual wage” in our Mass translation).

The Fathers generally held that this “denarius” represents eternal life, the basic “pay” of all who heed the Master’s call to come into his vineyard.  All workers will receive this reward equally.

The parable then seems at odds with other parables and teachings that suggest a distinction of greater and lesser reward in the next life (Luke 19:11-27; 1 Cor 3:14-15).  How can both perspectives be accurate?  And can it be fair of God to reward equally different levels of service?

St. Thomas actually addresses precisely this issue, and the text of this parable, in the Summa I–II, Q.5, Art.2 (“Whether one man may be happier than another.”)  St. Thomas answer is that, while God gives the same objective gift to each of the elect (eternal life), nonetheless there is a diversity in the subjective enjoyment of that gift.  In other words, heaven is granted to everyone who is in Christ, but the more virtuous will derive greater pleasure from it.

Who are the grumbling workers who bore the heat of the day and are dissatisfied with the pay?

In one sense, they may represent any Christian who misconstrues the nature of the vineyard, the nature of the Lord, and the purpose for their labor.

This first wave of workers has a legalistic conception of their relationship with the Lord.  They bargained and agreed on a certain reward for a certain amount of work.

The workers called later are working on trust.  They have no contract with the Lord.  The simply have faith that the Lord will indeed give them a salary that “is just.”  They must believe that the Lord is a man of his word; they have faith in him.

The first wave of workers also fail to see that it is a privilege to work in the vineyard, and take part in the labor of the Lord.  Being in the vineyard means being close to the Lord of the vineyard; this in itself is a privilege.  They should be glad that more workers have come (Matt 9:37-38).  Their joy should increase that others, even though lately come, can share the same joy they experience (see John 4:36; 1 John 1:3-4). 

In sum, the first wave of workers are per sons who heed God’s call but just don’t understand God’s self-giving nature, and haven’t assimilate that nature within themselves.  God’s thoughts (especially of mercy and grace) are far above their thoughts.  If they really understood the nature of the Lord of the vineyard, they would have been overjoyed that so many could share in the same reward they themselves received.


Anonymous said...

Outstanding. But you need to correct the post title. This Sunday is the 25th in OT

John Bergsma said...

Artifact. Fixed it.

John Bergsma said...

A good friend suggests a simple yet profound interpretation of the parable: the "denarius" or "day's wage" is the Eucharist. It seems obvious in hindsight, and pulls together the truth to be found in various other proposed interpretations.