25th Sunday in Year A
Isaiah 55:6-9 Philippians 1:20-24,27 Matthew 20:1-16
God is merciful beyond all measure, but more often than not his life giving generosity seems to be the cause of much bitterness, resentment and jealousy. We can see this pattern at work throughout the Bible: God looks favourably on Abel’s offering and out of sheer envy his brother kills him; the city of Nineveh is not destroyed and the prophet Jonas falls into a rage; Jesus mixes with tax collectors and sinners and is sharply criticised by the religious experts of his day, – and in today’s gospel the workers who had been toiling all day under the scorching heat cannot forgive their employer for paying a full day’s wages to those who only worked for an hour.
But if we were to lift our eyes from the pages of Holy Scripture to look at our own reflection in a mirror, would we see something very different? Can we say that we have never been disappointed with God’s apparent injustice? Or that we feel comfortable with the notion that somebody universally regarded as a bad character can be more readily welcomed into God’s kingdom than a person who spent their entire life trying to be good and decent? Perhaps we don’t think much of these questions, but the fact remains that God has only one thing to say to whoever may be displeased with his verdict: “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:14-15)
As I see it, these words are first of all a reminder that God alone is all-knowing and all-wise, and therefore none but He is able to repay each person according to their deeds (cf. Ps 61:13). There is only one lawgiver – St James tells us – and he is the only judge, who has the power to save or to destroy. Who are you to judge your neighbour? (Jm 4:12) Indeed, who am I to think I know exactly who deserves what, in this world or in the next, if I am so easily deceived by appearances and cannot even look into the depths of my own heart (cf. 1 S 16:7)? And if I yield to the temptation of passing judgement on others, am I not placing myself above my Creator, and ultimately issuing a verdict on God himself and his law (cf. Jm 4:12)?
Being thus warned against the sin of pride, we should be careful that God’s mercy towards others, in whatever form or shape, does not kindle in our hearts the fire of jealousy. From God’s generosity we should rather draw the inspiration to be more merciful ourselves, always bearing in mind what Jesus tells us: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the standard you use will be the standard used for you” (Mt 7:1-2). And also: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt 5:7).
Jesus insists on the need to abandon a judgemental mind-set simply because it stands in the way of a genuine conversion. And that is why he says to the Pharisees and the scribes, as well as to any other self-righteous person who resents God’s way of dealing with sinners: “Go and learn the meaning of the words: mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice”(Mt 9:12). This was in fact the lesson the early labourers in today’s parable did not quite fully grasp, but those who worked no more than an hour, having been shown greater mercy, were better able to understand and imitate their master, or they would not have been the first to receive their reward.
So the last will be first, and the first will be last (Mt 20:16). Is this a rule to which there is no exception? Nobody knows, but of one thing we can be sure – God wants each and every one of us to be counted among the first, and so he tells us yet again: “let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them” (Is 55:7).