The parables of Jesus often find us scratching our heads or grumbling about the outcome of the stories. This weekend’s gospel is one of the more familiar distressing examples. It’s that perplexing story of the workers in the vineyard who were paid what had been agreed upon at the beginning of the day. Fine, right? No, not really, since those who had been hired just an hour before the end of the workday, because no one had offered them work until then, got the same pay as those who had worked all day.
How are we able to make this a story of justice? It’s impossible really, but here’s where the reading from Isaiah comes in: “My thoughts are not your thoughts”, God says, “nor are my ways your ways.” We think everything should be fair. The person who cuts the pie must do so judiciously so that no one gets a bigger piece than anyone else. But sometimes some of the people don’t even get a bite, never mind a smaller piece! The workers who had been hired for the last hour were also probably standing out in the hot sun, hoping for someone to come and hire them so they could feed their family that day. And so God’s way prevailed.
So what is fair? Does it always mean everyone gets the exact same treatment or remuneration for the same circumstance? Or could it be that each person, being a unique reflection of the divine, should be considered individually according to need? We have been amazingly generous as a country over the past several weeks, reaching out to those affected by hurricanes or fires. People have given their time, their talent and their treasure to assure that anyone in need can receive as much help as can be given.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, all the time, we might be willing to fling open our hearts to those in need without stinting – as if everyone had a right to as much as everyone else? Isn’t that how we would always want God to treat us? Paul’s last line to the Philippians today calls them to “conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel.” Perhaps we ought to try to remember that challenge ourselves as we listen to Jesus in the gospel today asking us, “Are you envious because I am generous?”