Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew presents a parable that challenges our sense of justice. Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard. Some get hired at dawn, others at mid-morning, others at noon, others at mid-afternoon and still more near the end of the work day. When it comes time for the workers to get paid, everyone get paid a full day’s wages. Not surprisingly, those hired at dawn find this unacceptable and complain that they deserve more than those who worked far fewer hours. They can’t dispute that they are not being cheated in a legal sense: they were promised the usual daily wage for their work and were paid what they were promised. But it just doesn’t seem right to them. It offends their sense of justice.
Parable are effective precisely because they speak a truth that extends beyond the details of the story itself. While none of us has been toiling in the vineyards since dawn, if we are honest we will admit that we’ve all experienced something of the reaction of those workers. Where we haven’t been deprived of anything to which we have an actual entitlement, but where we feel cheated because someone else got more than we think they deserved. It is what we get in relation to what someone else gets that creates our unhappiness. We know exactly what those workers hired at dawn felt like and we feel their pain.
We have a tendency to have this reaction in matters of religion as well. We think people should have to pay for their sins. And I suspect that a lot of the discomfort people express about late or deathbed conversions is a lot less about concern over the sincerity of the one who repents at the eleventh hour than it is about being offended at the idea that their repentence gets them off the hook for not working as hard as we did in their earlier days.
But God’s ways are not our ways. And we make the same mistake that the early morning laborers made, which is the same mistake the older brother in the Prodigal Son story made – not understanding that God’s love is limitless and freely offered to all. God always offers us the whole shebang – endless love. Whether we accept it early or late…whatever the circumstances…when we turn to God we get it all. It may not seem just in human terms. But (to use phrasing my daughter might use) that’s the way God rolls.