September 18, 2011
The Gospel this Sunday is called the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. But more accurately, it can also be called the Parable of the Generous Landowner. His action greatly surprised everyone. How can he give those hired very late in the day the same salary as those who worked the whole day? There seems to be no fairness here. However, fairness is not the issue here because those hired early in the day were paid the right salary as agreed upon with the owner. Justice has been served. Instead, the issue here is generosity.
Whenever the issue of generosity comes up, it evokes both a positive and a negative response. The positive response is trust. In the parable, those hired early in the day were confident in the security provided by the formal contract with the owner. It was a business deal. But for those hired much later in the day, there was no mention of a contract: “He said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too'” (Mt 20:6-7). The workers relied on the word of the owner, and trusted that he will give them whatever is right. And they were not mistaken.
God’s generosity is beyond the comprehension of everybody: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). Knowing this should be enough reason and assurance for us to trust God unconditionally. This is what St. Paul told the Romans: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:32). Rightly, then, did the Spirit-filled Elizabeth praise the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Visitation: “Blessed is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45).
On the other hand, the negative response to generosity is envy: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15). God’s generosity is quite acceptable and even desirable when we are the recipients. The problem comes when it is other people who are the recipients, especially those whom we think are less worthy than us.
This is precisely what happened to the Jews at the time of Jesus. They were convinced that they were better than anybody else since they belonged to the Chosen People of God. They expected to be treated with a “favored nation” status. They are the ones referred by Jesus in the parable as the workers who were hired first. They resented seeing people whom they considered less worthy, receiving favors from God. They hated the sight of Jesus dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, curing the lepers and talking to pagans. Jesus rebuked them for this sort of attitude: “Thus the first will be last and the last will be first.”
We belong to the Church founded by Christ Himself. We are now the New People of God. But the Gospel today exhorts us to avoid the mistake of the Jews. By all means, let us resist and overcome envy. Being the New People of God does not mean we are better than the others, and that we can expect and demand heavenly favors more than the others. Let us always remember that if God is generous with us, He can also be generous to others. The good thief crucified next to Jesus is the classic example of this. Jesus told him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Indeed, as God tells us in the first reading, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is 55:8).
Definitely, envy is rooted in pride. It comes in when we compare ourselves with others. When we do so, two things can always happen. It is either we see people who are less talented or blessed than us. Then we become proud and arrogant. Or we see people who are better than us, and we become envious and bitter.
The only antidote to envy is humility. It is the virtue that helps us realize who we really are in the presence of God: sinners and the “rejects”. But God continues to love and bless us despite this. Such is the formula of holiness by the saints. Instead of comparing themselves with other people, the saints always compare themselves with God. And when they do, they have only two things to say to God: “I’m sorry, Lord!” and “Thank you, Lord!”
As we come to Mass, we always come in the presence of God. And so, it is but proper to start the Mass with the Penitential Rite, an act of humility: “I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned…Lord, have mercy!” And then we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The term “Eucharist” means, “to give thanks”. The Mass, then, is an invitation for us to humble gratitude and unfailing trust and confidence in God’s generous providence and merciful love for us sinners.
Let me close with these words of Bishop Fulton Sheen: “How God will judge my life I know not, but I trust he will see me with mercy and compassion. I am only certain there will be three surprises in Heaven. First of all, I will see some people whom I never expected to see. Second, there will be a number whom I expect who will not be there. And – even relying on God’s mercy – the biggest surprise of all may be that I will be there.”
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
On Pilgrimage in Italy