The parable of the laborers

Last week’s reading from the Gospel was about the mercy of the king, and this week’s seems to be about justice. Last week, the debtor who received mercy from the king could not extend mercy to somebody in his debt. This week, the laborers agree on a just wage with the landowner at the start of the day, but they cry injustice at the end of the day when they see what others are paid.

When we hear this story about the landowner and the laborers, we tend to focus on the end of the story where there is payment for services rendered and we are drawn to the folks who worked all day – their sense of injustice that they got paid the same as the folks who worked only the last hour. And there does seem to be a logical response, which is “I made my deal with them, and I made my deal with you. And what does the details of my deal with them have to do with the details of the deal I made with you?” And that seems reasonable.

And that’s an important part of the story, it’s certainly true that as Christians we need to focus on our relationship with Jesus and less on somebody else’s relationship with Jesus. There is an awful lot of gossip that goes on under the guise of Christian concern. We don’t really need to know the details of Billy and Suzy’s marital distress to pray for Billy and for Suzy. So when we feel that urge to know more about somebody’s troubles, perhaps that’s something for us to pray on. “Oh Lord, let me know appropriate boundaries. What I am supposed to do and concern myself with, and what I am not supposed to do or concern myself with.”

All of the above is certainly an important part of the story, but what caught my eye as I read this Gospel is how the landowner (Jesus) approached and conversed with the last people who were called to work. You go to Mass every week or nearly every week. Some of you go to Mass nearly every day. And I wonder if this reading might not be a word of warning to those of us who are “good Catholics.”

We go to Mass, we show up, we are like those workers who were there at the first hour and made sure the landowner saw them and hired them. But there is a big difference between showing up so you get hired – going to Mass – and being a true laborer – a true disciple – of our Lord Jesus Christ. And Jesus doesn’t want people who just show up and do it out of duty or out of custom. He wants people to build on their sense of duty and to fully engage in the glorious walk to Heaven that is our life after Baptism. It is what we are called to do. It is what he wants for us.

And when we see latecomers, those people who seem to have led a less good life and yet are welcomed by the Church, let us come back to this story and notice how those who were hired early in the day and are grumbling about injustice; perhaps they didn’t hear the question that the landowner, Jesus, asked of the latecomers: “Why are you still here?” They said to him, “No one will hire us.” Those latecomers were still seeking. Many of the people who come to the Catholic Church later in their lives or come back to the Church, were seeking the good and got distracted by things that are good but are not The Good.

And that suggests to me that he doesn’t mind it if we respond to his call later than we should if we have been looking for him. If we have stumbled around this world seeking what is good and what is true and what is beautiful and have somehow not caught on to the fullness of Truth and the True Beauty, and the Real Good, but have been captured by lesser goods or lesser truths, let us not be so quick as to judge ourselves as having wasted all of that time. But let us say, “Lord, thank you for persisting and chasing after me. Even though I am here much later than I should have been, I finally found you. And you don’t hold against me all the many times that I wandered somewhat lost looking for you in all the wrong places and finding not you when I was looking for you.” So let’s not be too hard on ourselves if we have actually been seeking God. But let us be challenge ourselves if we have been doing our Christian duty for some lesser reason.

But how are we to know the difference? We need to remember that we are a spiritual battler: we are fighting against the devil and with God. But we are also the spiritual battlefield on which the battle is fought. The devil is pursuing us and God is pursuing us. We are the prize.

As both spiritual battler and spiritual battlefield, we are not equipped to understand fully God’s mercy or God’s justice. That’s what Isaiah is hinting when he says that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts but are so much higher than ours. The parable of the laborers shows us we don’t know what God knows, and we cannot assume his role of judge and jury over others.

What made it hard for the early hires to accept the generosity of the landowner (Jesus) to the late hires was their pride. We good Catholics must always be fighting against the sin of pride. We need to be asking God for the gift of humility. Humility is not thinking less OF yourself, it is thinking less ABOUT yourself. Mother Teresa has a list of tools to grow in humility.

  • Speak as little as possible about yourself.
  • Give in, in discussions, even when you are right.
  • Do not dwell on the faults of others.

Mother Teresa is a saint. She’s in heaven. She’s a good one to emulate. St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.

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