"Are you envious because I am generous? Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matt. 20:16)
This is how Jesus sums up his teaching in today’s Gospel. For us who are brought up with a "First World" notion of fairness, this teaching does not make much sense. Many of us were brought up with the expectation that the more personal effort we put into something, the more reward we should expect. Personal worth is very much tied up with the personal investment we give to our job, our life and into whatever we do. The more work we do, the more pay we should receive.
Jesus certainly challenges this understanding of how life is to be lived with his teaching in today’s Gospel. Our salvation, our saving grace is a generous gift given to us by a loving God. And that tenet of our Catholic faith tells us that it is through this generosity on the part of God that we become heirs of the Reign of God, that is, God’s children and Jesus’ brothers and sisters and, thus, brothers and sisters to one another. God’s generous reward for working in God’s vineyard is absolute communion with God and with one another.
Our human tendency is not to measure our worth by God’s standards, but by our own measuring rod. Our human way of doing things is to measure our rewards according to the efforts we put into our work, into our life, even into our salvation. This approach to spirituality will ultimately lead to quantifying our spiritual exercises. Those who fall into this temptation will want to do more in order to accumulate more reward, yes, even a higher reward, like those workers who began working at the first crack of dawn.
On the other hand, those who get invited to enter into God’s vineyard at the last minute may be tempted to think that their last hour of work is not worth the effort, and so they may decline the invitation to come and work. In this parable, we are not told of how many workers decided not to go with the owner just to do an hour’s work. It is our desire to respond to God’s invitation that leads us to eternal life. That is what all of the workers of the vineyard have in common. They said yes to God and to the work that God had them do.
The owner of the vineyard in this parable asks the key question of this Gospel passage: Are you envious because I (God) am generous? During the course of our lives, we sometimes find ourselves complaining to God as to how unfairly God has treated us. We see people who seem to have more even though they have lived a more sinful life than we have. We see people lie and cheat to get ahead in this life and they seem to get away with it. We think we work hard every day, trying to resist temptation, seeking forgiveness when we fail and doing everything the Church tells us to do, and yet less "worthy" people get the attention they don’t deserve. Envy dehumanizes us. Envy makes us less forgiving, less charitable and less Christ-like.
This Scripture today invites us to deal with this sinful attitude of envy, often overlooked in our Spiritual lives, and often glossed over because of its implications. Today, we are invited to pray for total acceptance of God’s generosity, because that is what makes us Children of God and heirs of the Reign of God.
Fr. Clemente Barron, C.P. is a member of the General Council of the Passionist Congregation and is stationed in Rome