I wonder if you find this Gospel parable a little aggravating. I have heard it many times now, and I certainly have bristled with aggravation on occasion when I’ve heard it. And, as I often say, it’s good when the Gospel gets us a little riled up, because that means God is doing something in us that invites us to salvation.
Certainly the people hearing it in Jesus’ day would have been aggravated when they heard this parable 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, first of all, 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 let’s 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. I think we know that in our heads, but when it comes to how this parable plays out, it reveals that we may not have accepted it in our hearts.
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 very well could be. Many years ago now, I heard about the deathbed conversion of actor John Wayne. I remember thinking 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.
And who am I to judge John Wayne, or really anyone? 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. Maybe he had, in fact, been kept from hearing the Gospel in his formative years and so didn’t have the basis for a life of faith that many of us do. 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 we are blessed that we worship a generous, or we’d all of us be in a world of hurt, without exception.
If anything, even us cradle Catholics should be grateful for this message, because if we are honest, our tiniest sins are a grave offense to Almighty God, who is goodness itself, and who gives us everything we need in this life and in the next. We who have gravely offended God by our sins need those second chances too, and we have them.
Another good way to think about this parable on this Catechetical Sunday, is that the time to foster a relationship with Jesus isn’t limited to the beginning of the day, or the beginning of our life. We are called to form a life-long relationship of learning, and growing in relationship, with the God who loves us beyond anything we can imagine. Every hour of the day, every stage of our life, is an opportunity to let Jesus come and get us, and put us to work in the field of the faith.
The last line of the Gospel might sound unfair, but ultimately, I think, it is hopeful: “The first will be last and the last will be first.” Let that sink in for a minute: whether you’re first or last, you still have the possibility of life eternal. It doesn’t matter when you get there, or where you were in line, or if someone cut in ahead of you. There is always enough grace and mercy to go around. There are always dwellings for us in the kingdom of heaven. None of us will be left without the love of God, if only we approach it, if only we accept it, if only we don’t get caught up in thinking about who gets in ahead of us. News doesn’t get any better than that.