“[A]re you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15)

by Susanna Mak
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 55:6-9

Philippians 1:20C-24, 27A

Matthew 20:1-16A

“It’s just not fair!”

“I deserve it!”

“They don’t deserve anything!

How many times have we heard or uttered these powerful words? The feelings of discontent, anger, and jealousy, though real in every sense and we must not casually dismiss or ignore them, are often rooted in our misunderstanding of the big picture and our inability to look beyond the reality in front of our eyes. Further, “fair” and “deserve” may not be the right terms to express such reality. When a sibling receives more attention from the parents; when a colleague receives more recognition for the same amount of work; when a student is given more time and/or resources to complete the same task at school; when someone skips the line at the restaurant or grocery store; all these scenarios seem to be far too familiar to all of us. Such examples are certainly not lacking in the Bible: the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”; the “Parable of the Lost Sheep”; and of course, this week’s Gospel from Matthew, “The Labourers in the Vineyard”. Each of these stories reveals a truth about God’s Kingdom and vision, one that is drastically different from and beyond our perception. This week’s readings invite us to free ourselves from our presumptions so that God’s big picture, beyond the limited reality we can perceive with our eyes, can be made visible to our heart.

This week’s Gospel from Matthew offers a scenario that is quite puzzling. The landowner goes out to hire labourers to work for the agreed upon “usual daily wage” (Mt 20:2). This individual seems nice enough, and even benevolent, as he keeps hiring people throughout the day as long as people need employment. The interesting twist in the story is that he decides to pay everyone the same daily wage regardless of the number of hours they spend working in his vineyard! At this junction, even readers can’t help but protest, “It’s not fair!” That’s exactly what one of the labourers said, “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” (Mt 20:12). The landowner doesn’t get angry or give in, he simply says, “are you envious because I am generous” (Mt 20:15)?

Let’s not pretend that this is easy to swallow or understand; however, Isaiah explains this mystery perfectly, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9). Our human “thoughts” and “ways” are limited and short-sighted. The story of “The Labourers in the Vineyard” as well as Isaiah’s words demand a paradigm shift in our perception and understanding of what’s right and just. Does giving everyone the exact same resources, regardless of individuals’ needs and circumstances, seem “fair”? What’re the better and more merciful options? Mahatma Gandhi once said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Indeed, such is the measure of the Kingdom of God. This certainly resonates with what St. Paul has been teaching us all along, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it” (1Cor 12:22-26).

Through the lens of God’s Kingdom, God’s mercy is ever richer to those who need it; even for the “unrighteous”, “let that person return to the Lord that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Is 55:7). God’s mercy is without limit and is abundant for everyone who is willing to receive it. Indeed, like the Psalmist says, “The Lord is just in all his ways and kind in all his doings” (Ps 145:17). God’s justice is not our justice; God’s ways are not our ways; He does everything out of kindness. In truth, justice and mercy go hand in hand.

Indeed, at the heart of God’s kingdom is love from which God’s grace flows freely and generously. It will be presumptuous for any one of us to think that we “deserve” anything from God; our everything - our life - is a pure gift of love from our Heavenly Father. Like the landowner, God chooses and calls each of us by name to enter into His Kingdom (the vineyard); into an intimate and genuine relationship as children instead of servants.