The Parable of the Vineyard Workers
The parable is a sort of a desperate attempt on the part of Jesus to tell us what God is like. And what God is like proves a real shocker for fair-minded people. Because he is not fair, if by fair we mean what the dictionary defines by that word: showing no more favor to one side than to another, as a judge is supposed to be in a court of law. In that sense, God is not fair because he is not a judge, as Jesus tell us when he says in John’s gospel: “The father himself judges no one, but has assigned all judgment to the Son.” (Jn 5:22)
A judge is obliged to give each one what he or she deserves in strict justice. But a father is under no such obligation. He can go beyond mere justice and give more than what his children deserve without violating anybody’s rights. In fact, he must do so because no one deserves anything in strict justice. As creatures who receive our every breath of life from God and all of life’s its gifts and resources, we owe God an infinite gratitude. As sinners who have offended God many many times over since our birth, we deserve only punishment for our sins. But God graciously forgives us.
And so, if he decides to forgive my neighbor a few hundred times more than he forgives me, how can I be envious of my neighbor? If sinners convert at the last minute whereas I tried to serve God all my life and we all find ourselves in heaven because of God’s gracious grace, why should I complain? All of us get what we do not deserve. The bottom line is this: can I afford to face a fair God, a God who would be infinitely just — but nothing beyond that? If God decided to treat me with the laws of strict justice, where would I end up? Thank God he is not fair! The reality that God is not fair is actually the basis of all our hope. When we appear before him at the hour of our death, our hope is that we won’t be confronted with the sad reckoning of our sins but instead we will find a father ready to welcome us with open arms — even if we don’t deserve it!
The Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno has a story about the origin of Hell. The setting is the afterlife and the action unfolds outside the great diamond walls of Heaven. A long line of people wait to be processed before being admitted into Heaven. Suddenly there is a flurry of excitement. An angel who has come out of heaven spreads an astonishing piece of news among the people nearing Heaven’s gates. His announcement spreads like wildfire among the thousands of future saints. The electrifying report is about what God is like. The rumor of what he is like is breathlessly shared from mouth to mouth and reaches the end of the waiting line. That rumor says simply this: “He admits everybody inside!” When the angel confirms with a powerful megaphone for all to hear his wonderful words, some people lined up for heaven immediately rebelled at the idea of sharing Heaven with a bunch of sinners. And that was when Hell was created — to accommodate those who could not accept that fact that God was not only not fair but also lavishly gracious and generous.
We experience God’s forgiveness not only in the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Reconciliation. In daily prayer, especially the Lord’s Prayer, in the works of mercy and in heartfelt examination of conscience, we come to know the God who forgives us. As we appreciate God’s love and forgiveness in our lives, let us pray that we have true contrition for our sins: “Lord Jesus, you chose to be called the friend of sinners. By your saving death and resurrection free me from my sins. May your peace take root in my heart and bring forth a harvest of love, holiness and truth.”