September 19, 2011

God is Always Fair

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Matthew 20:1-16 “Are you jealous because I am generous?”

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord in our first reading today (Isaiah 55: 6-9). These words from the prophet Isaiah will guide us to understand our gospel today. God’s way are not our way, God’s mathematics is not our mathematics. He’s logic is not our logic.

Anybody who hears the gospel today may think that the landowner is really unfair especially to those hired early in the morning. In our present world where all work must be compensated, we find the landowner unfair to those hired at 6 AM. They have the right to receive more than to those who worked for just an hour.

But in reality, the landowner was actually fair to all laborers, because they all agreed to be paid the minimum wage. There is no guile here. It was done in good faith. What made the early workers furious were envy - that they were not the lucky recipient of the landowner’s generosity. Jesus explicitly mentioned it, “Are you jealous because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15).

When I was in Montaban Relocation Site in Rizal, we used to distribute Christmas goodies for the poor, I remember a man who used to complain a lot each time we distribute goods to the people. He always irritated us. But he never complained when he was first on the queue or when he received more than the others. The laborers in our gospel are like that. They are protesting because they felt shortchanged. Envy plays a big role here. We complain when we are at the disadvantage but we care less when we receive the bigger and better portion of the pie.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus instantly promised the reward of heaven to one of the thieves, “I promised you that today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Some of us who are working hard to be good to achieve the reward of heaven might protest, “That’s not fair. He is stealing heaven. He did nothing to merit heaven.” We might even say, “If this is the case, we should eat, drink be merry carelessly and commit sins. Why strive to be good and holy in our younger years when God can easily forgive us later and reward us equally?”

We failed the see the point of the gospel. The gospel gives hope to those who are not working for God’s vineyard for many years. But God does not condone such idling, of course not. The gospel should bring us to a realization that it is never too late for anyone to return to God and work for his vineyard. And yet some would still insist that God is unfair to those who are faithful to Him, and gives favor to the sinners.

A theologian once said, “We sinners and martyrs may find themselves together in the presence of God because God looks at us equally but the degree of happiness might vary. Aside from being in God’s presence, what make people happy in heaven are their thoughts that they did for something for God and for their fellowmen during their earthly life.”

A bench warmer player who did nothing for the team in winning the much coveted championship title will still go to Europe with his teammates as a reward. But when the players start remembering and recalling those momentous plays, crucial breaks and difficulty in winning the championship, the players who played and fought hard for the team will be the happiest. They have stories to tell and be proud of to their friends and families. Bench warmers have nothing to share.

But I am not here to prove that God is just to everybody or to console those who are working in the Lord’s vineyard that they should not envy the late workers or those who are not working for the Lord. The gospel today wants us to purify our motivation in serving God. We don’t serve the Lord to merit material graces or to inherit heaven. We serve the Lord out of love because He has given us a lot and bless us a lot with many graces. As St.Ignatius of Loyola would say, "To give and not to count the cost." I remember Tita Glo, a volunteer in New Bilibid Prison, she said, "When one is genuinely serving God, he or she should not expect anything in return, even the words thank you."

The workers who complain are echoes of the elder son’s complaint in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The sin of the elder was envy. He failed to identify himself with the father’s joy of a returning son. The father reminded the elder son of what love is: To be happy that his younger brother is back home. What made the elder son envious was the thought that his younger brother does not deserve such warm welcome and lavish banquet, while he himself, a very faithful son, did not receive any reward from the father… not even a single goat!

And so the Father said: “My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive, he was lost, but now he has been found” (Luke 15:31).

To love is to think of the welfare of others. Those who know how to love are genuinely happy when others are happy.

Fr.Willy M. Samson,SJ
Sacred Heart Chapel
Ateneo de Zamboanga University

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