The Gospel reading this Sunday is one of my favorite parables because it allows us a glimpse into the mind of God. It's a glimpse that can be a bit disconcerting; we find that He is beyond all our quaint concepts of justice and goodness. Here is Matthew 20:1-16.
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"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, he 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, he 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."
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When I first heard this parable as a kid, I remember thinking, "But the first laborers were right! It's unfair!" I have (I hope) grown in wisdom since then, and (I hope) in faith, and I have realized something very important: God is always right.
The laborers who worked the whole day received the daily wage, as agreed. That is God's justice. The laborers who worked only an hour received the same amount. That is God's generosity. Just as the owner of the vineyard is free to do as he wishes with his own money, so God should be free to bestow his blessings and grace however He chooses.
The First Reading states it this way: "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." (Isaiah 55: 8-9)
In one of my college classes, my term paper was based on a book that discussed whether or not salvation was available for non-Christians. Many non-Catholic denominations, and even the Catholic Church itself, up to a certain period, believed that those who had not received the sacrament of baptism would not be saved. This includes babies who died before they could be baptized, and people in remote corners of the world who hadn't even heard of Jesus Christ. This of course stems from the fact that Christians believe it is their faith in Christ that saves them. And this was what provided impetus for missions around the world, since Christians also believe it is their duty to spread the Gospel and show the others the way to salvation.
The Catholic Church eventually re-defined its position. In a landmark document (I just forgot which one, hehe), they conceded that it is possible -- if God wills it -- for people of other religions, and even those with no religions, to gain entrance to heaven. Up until then, I'd thought of the RCC leadership as a hierarchy of well-meaning old men who nevertheless make all these fuddy-duddy rules based on spiritual concepts too difficult to understand. That was the first time I thought, omigosh, the Catholics have some sense after all! (I'm Catholic, by the way. It was a long journey from there to my current appreciation of my Catholic heritage, but that was the first step.)
I don't want to stir another religious debate. I state the "salvation for non-Christians" issue as an example of a case where we can make all these rules, and these rules may be based on our best logic and our deepest faith, but in the end, it's still God who decides. If He wants to admit non-Christians into His kingdom, why shouldn't He? Or is He not free to do as He wishes with His own kingdom?
Far be it from me to declare that I know God's mind, entirely, consummately, to the point where I say, "This is what I believe because I am certain God agrees with me!" I know some of His mind, perhaps -- I know He is good, He is merciful, He is just, and, if I may be so bold, He also has a sense of humor. He is better than the best of us, and He is smarter than the rest of us combined. My ways are not His ways, and I am content with that. It is enough for me to know that He knows me, entirely and consummately. He knows that whatever I believe, I believe after having thought it through with my best logic, in tune with my deepest faith. If I am wrong, He at least knows I have tried. I am at His mercy, as is everyone else, and I am betting that He will be a better God than we all take Him for.