I wonder if you find this Gospel parable a little aggravating. I know I do. Certainly the people hearing it in Jesus’ day would have been aggravated too. They knew the economics of day laboring better than we do (although day laborers are by no means extinct in the twenty-first century). The very thought that those who labored hard all day, in the sun, would get the same as those who worked but an hour was unthinkable. I dare say we find it that way too.
So it’s important for us to notice that this is not intended to be a parable about justice. Jesus tells us right away: “The kingdom of God is like a landowner…” So the parable is not about justice, but instead it is an illustration of the workings of the Kingdom of God. In one sense, that’s comforting, because Jesus is not telling us that we should run our businesses with lavish disregard for economic wisdom. I would be hard pressed to be convinced to even run the parish that way.
But now think about the fact that the parable is about the Kingdom of God. Jesus was delivering a message to the religious establishment: they didn’t have the monopoly on the kingdom. They thought they had earned God’s reward, and Jesus tells them it doesn’t work that way. It’s not about what you’ve done or how long you’ve been doing it, it’s about God’s mercy and love that is poured out with lavish generosity. They would have found that pretty irritating.
And maybe some of us do, too. Do you mean to tell me that those of us who have worked hard and long for the mission and spent our days and nights at church might inherit just as much as someone who ignores the Gospel and converts on his or her death bed? Well, yes. That could be. Many years ago now, I heard about the deathbed conversion of actor John Wayne. I thought at the time, “Gee, that’s convenient.” Here he may well have led a life of excess and who knows what all debauchery and only on his deathbed was he willing to form a relationship with God. Here those of us disciples have been working hard at it all this time, and yet some can get it just at the last minute? That makes me bristle with thoughts of unfairness. But, as the prophet Isaiah tells us today, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and our ways are not God’s ways.
It’s important to note that we cannot pass judgment on anyone. I don’t know the details about John Wayne’s life and certainly not about his relationship with the Lord. Who knows if a conversion wasn’t something he had been looking forward to for a long time and he didn’t know how to make it happen. The important thing is that his desire was granted, in the waning moments of his life, and God is generous. That’s all we need to know.
Let’s face it, none of us wants God to be too strict an accountant. No matter how hard we may try to be good disciples, we often fall short in big ways and small ways. God gives us second chances all the time. And thank God he’s generous, or we’d all of us be in a world of hurt, without exception. Pope Francis is reminding us all of that kind of humility and its value, and we would do well to live it. The last line of the Gospel is hopeful: “The first will be last and the last will be first.” So whether you’re first or last, you still have the possibility of life eternal. News doesn’t get any better than that.