God’s thoughts and ways

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Today’s gospel is again one of those difficult passages that can pose be a veritable challenge to every homilist. The parable tells of a landowner who, at different hours of the day, hires laborers to work in his vineyard. To each of them he promises to pay a just wage. At the end of the day, he pays everyone the same amount, prompting angry protest from those who began work early.

We can readily sympathize with the complaining laborers, who feel being shortchanged and made victims of unfair labour practice. The landowner, however, maintains that he is just and does not cheat anyone because he keeps his word of giving them the just wage. He further adds that he is free to do as he pleases with his money, and that he cannot be faulted for being generous. What can we make of this?

The key to understanding the parable lies in the first reading wherein Isaiah writes, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord”. I think Jesus purposely intended the parable to be provocative in order to jolt his listeners to shift from their way of thinking to God’s way, and to leap from their own standards to those of the kingdom.

The parable is not about the issue of work or fair wage. It is a metaphor of the kingdom of God. It speaks of salvation. The denarius is the full day’s wage, given by the landowner to everyone whom he invites to work in his vineyard. It is a symbol of everlasting life which God offers to all. Hence, it is something we do not earn or merit, but a gift gratuitously given by God who is generous and merciful.

Pope Benedict XVI has a precious insight in this regard. “The first message of this parable is inherent in the very fact that the landowner does not tolerate, as it were, unemployment: he wants everyone to be employed in his vineyard. Actually, being called is already the first reward: to be able to work in the Lord’s vineyard, to put oneself at his service, to collaborate in his work, is in itself a priceless recompense that repays every effort. Yet only those who love the Lord and his Kingdom understand this: those who instead work only for the pay will never realize the value of this inestimable treasure.” (Angelus, 21 Sept. 2008)

Today’s readings invite us to assume God’s thoughts and ways. Our way of thinking is often closed and focused on self, thus failing to see the bigger reality of which we are an integral part. When our vision is restricted and self-referential, we cannot but be petty, calculating and prone to envy. Seeing that the other man’s grass is always greener, we are unrelenting in keeping up with the Joneses.
Even our relationship with God becomes transactional. We keep count of our good deeds as pogi points to earn our place in the kingdom.
This is the mentality of the laborers who feel cheated in the parable. Jesus instead introduces us to God’s thoughts and ways, as shown by the landowner.

The spirituality of stewardship (which we have adopted as our diocesan spirituality) is a simple and intelligible articulation of God’s thoughts and ways. It starts with the realization that everything is a gift. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1Cor 4:7) This awareness cannot but make us grateful and responsible for God’s gifts. We feel blessed with life and the world given to us as stewards. And because God is infinitely generous to us, we cannot but be generous to all.

Many of you are familiar with an old rabbinical parable about two brothers, who grew up tilling the field together with their father. When the father died, they continued to work on the field and agreed to divide the harvest between them equally. Fast forward. The younger brother eventually got married and had eight children, while the elder remained single. One day, the elder thought to himself,
“My brother has a big family to feed, while I’m just alone. It’s unfair that I have so much.” Meanwhile the other brother also thought, “My brother is alone and needs to have savings for his old age.” And so, each thought of transferring some of their harvest to the other’s barn.

That night, they met face to face and caught each other in the divine act of sharing. As they embraced, a gentle rain fell on them for God cried tears of joy, seeing that his children have learned to think and act like him.

That’s certainly an inspiring parable. But I know a true story that captures the same message. In the diocese of Kabankalan, the priests practice what they call the All-In Policy. They pool together all the fruits of their ministry (stipends, Mass intentions, honoraria…) and share them equally. At the end of the month, each priest receives the same allowance, whether he is parish priest or assistant, newly ordained or senior, assigned in the city or in the mountains.

They literally live out the invitation of today’s gospel and feel that as one presbyterium they work in the same vineyard under the same Lord and receive the same full day’s wage. It does not matter whether one came in early or late in the priesthood, or is extra-gifted or just plain ordinary… as long as each one gives his all in the work of building God’s kingdom.

That’s why when it rains in Kabankalan, I sometimes wonder whether they are tears that fall from heaven.*

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