Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’
When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways – it is the Lord who speaks.” This is from the first reading at today’s Mass. This, written about seven centuries before Christ, could serve as a summing up of the gospel reading, for this parable shows us the kind of ‘labour relations’ that God has with us.
The men who had worked all day received a normal day’s wages: one denarius. So far we are with him; this is normal justice. But they believed that the men who had worked less than they would receive less, particularly those who had worked only one hour. But they received the same amount. They complained bitterly, but the employer replied, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Justice is about merit, generosity is about need.
God is more than just to us; God is generous. This is a “thought of God” that is far above our thoughts. If God were strictly just to us we would all be in a bad way. Our hope lies in the fact that God is also merciful. How can we reconcile the justice and the mercy of God? I have read some chilling attempts to do so. Here is one from the 19th century: “It is because God is just that His wrath had to be poured out, and it is because God is merciful that His wrath was not poured out on all sinners, but on Christ in place of sinners.” This would not be mercy, but justice gone wrong; in other words, injustice.
That was from a famous theologian and preacher, but it needed another 19th-century person – a young woman of no theological education and no pretensions to being a preacher – to rid us of that cold-blooded way of thinking. St Thérèse of Lisieux said simply, “God’s justice IS his mercy.” In other words, mercy is God’s kind of justice. There is no justice in God that can be considered separately from his mercy, and therefore it is false to consider God’s justice as needing expression in punishment, either of us or vicariously of Christ. Everything in the mind of God is one, as theologians have always said; the only distinction in God is the distinction of the three Divine Persons. The separation of justice and mercy is due only to our language; we have separate words for them and this leads us to consider them separately – which then leaves us with the insoluble problem of putting them back together again. St Thérèse’s insight was that they should not be separated in the first place. It is a good example of the wisdom that is hidden from the learned and clever and revealed to little ones (Luke 10:21).
Put it this way. If your six-year-old child misbehaved, you would not call the police, you would not subject her to the rigour of the law; your correction of her would be gentle and proportioned to her age and understanding – in other words it would be merciful. Even while repeating that God is the Supreme Good, many have made God far worse than we are.