Rev. Thomas Nairn, OFM, Ph.D.
Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-24, 27a; Mt 20:1-16a
How many times have we heard these words? How many times have we used these words? Whether we were kids being punished for something we didn't do — or for something we didn't think warranted the punishment — or whether it's a response to a situation where someone close to us is being threatened, or whether we simply watch the television news and see people who are being poorly treated anywhere in the world - we react against unfairness, real or perceived. And so in today's Gospel we hear of workers, toiling in the hot sun for up to 12 hours, reacting against what they see as unfair: "These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat!"
The Gospel story is so familiar, that we, comfortable with its familiarity, might not really listen to it as closely as we should. If we allow ourselves to hear it in a new way, it may challenge our ideas about what is fair and what is unfair, and in so doing, it may also challenge us to deepen our understanding of God's justice and generosity.
The story begins with the words, "Go work in my vineyard and I will give you what is just." It is not an agreement on any particular wage, but simply what is just, what is fair. It ends with the words, "Are you envious because I am generous?" In between, it calls into question our usual understanding of both justice and generosity, so that we must conclude with the prophet Isaiah in today's first reading that "as high as the heavens are above the earth," so different are the thoughts and ways of God from our own.
What is our idea of justice? Does it mean keeping away from favoritism or partiality? Does it mean that everything should be done according to the rules? Do we have some absolute understanding of what is just and what is unjust? Or does justice depend on what I have or receive in relation to what others have or get? Notice that although the first workers received a wage that they ordinarily would have considered to be just by regular standards, once they discovered that others who had not worked as long received the full day's wage, what originally was seen as fair then is perceived as a sign of injustice. What does this story say about God — and about us?
Perhaps an example can help here. In recent times, people have come to see sickness, especially serious and painful sickness, as unfair. Many today question the power, love and goodness of a God who allows such pain and suffering to even exist. They ask, "Why me?" and wonder how God can be fair and just and still allow their sickness and suffering.
The experience of serious sickness does force us to focus on ourselves. We may feel fatigued. Constant pain and discomfort may make it more difficult to do our normal tasks and easier to avoid interactions with others. We focus more and more on ourselves. We might see it as a problem that we need to be dependent on others once again, especially if we've been pretty independent most of our lives. And often we feel that we can't talk to anyone else about these feelings — others just wouldn't understand. Our serious sickness might even become a threat to others, as we remind them of their own mortality. We have every reason to be wrapped up in ourselves.
We might feel like those workers who were hired early in the day. We've been toiling long hours in the sun and heat and we want justice. We face our suffering and the unfairness of it all, and we often experience feelings of frustration, of anger and even of outrage. And we ask, "Where is our good and gracious God?"
We're probably not comfortable in hearing the strange answer of today's Gospel, "Are you envious because I am generous?" How can such illness and suffering be a sign of generosity? Yet, in faith we are challenged to take that answer seriously. In doing so, we may discover that God is not the arbitrary sender of sickness. But rather, God is the one who cares for us and supports us in our sickness and suffering. Furthermore, we can come to realize that, although sickness and the suffering it entails will always remain part of our human lives, it does not have to demean the precious gift of life itself or the great dignity we have been given as sons and daughters of God, created in God's very image. Notice that in today's second reading, Paul himself is looking at his limitations and even death itself and asks whether it is better to depart this life and be with Christ or to continue living and doing the work of Christ.
Sickness and suffering are evil, but we believe that through his cross and resurrection, Christ has already conquered this evil. Like Paul, we are asked to trust that somehow even in the seeming indignity and unfairness of sickness and suffering we can find the grace of God. In fact, we Christians believe that it is not we who find God's grace, but rather, grace that finds us, even in sickness. Our faith allows us to glimpse meaning in suffering and sickness even when it seems to be hidden. Although God does not take our suffering away, we nevertheless believe that God remains with us in our suffering. The cross of Christ instructs us that there is no place that God will not go to be with us and to carry our burdens. Today's Gospel indeed can be seen as a call for us to trust in God's love and generosity.
This trust should not be confused with being some sort of Pollyanna. We don't pretend that having such an attitude of faith lessens sickness or the pain and diminishment it causes, but it does keep us from being spiritually overwhelmed by sickness. It acknowledges the true evil of sickness and suffering, but it does not accept that God is an arbitrary dispenser of sickness. It recognizes in faith that the evil of sickness, suffering or death is not the last word - that the love of God in Christ is stronger than sickness, suffering and even death itself. It takes seriously the words of St. Paul in today's second reading, that we conduct ourselves in a way that is worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
What might this conduct look like? It might mean that we move out to others, recognizing the importance of our dependence upon the Christian community. It might mean that rather than trying always to be in control, we witness to the fact that not everything can be fixed, that it is not we who are in charge, but God. And in an age that often denies death and the limits that sickness imposes, it might mean that we speak the truth concerning our own sickness and suffering. Most especially it might mean that we continue to witness to that profound trust in the love and generosity of God, who remains with us in our sickness.
This is not an easy task, especially when we are experiencing sickness. But it is a transformative task, changing us from sufferers into witnesses. We become witnesses to our God who does not unfairly send us suffering, but rather, in spite of the length and heat of our toil, lovingly and generously nourishes and supports us.