Magnanimous. It is a big word for a big concept, yet even this word hints at only a drop in the ocean compared to God’s generosity to his children. Today’s gospel parable, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, shines a spotlight on the mystery of God’s grace and generosity. Jesus uses this disturbing yet comforting parable to help us grasp that his great generosity is equally available to all who answer his call.
The late workers receive the same reward as the early workers, though they have clearly not earned it by their efforts. The reaction of those who “worked a full day in the scorching heat” is understandable; ours would be the same: That’s not fair! We’ve been cheated! They don’t deserve the same as us! We deserve more than they do… This is the natural, expected human response. However, as the owner of the vineyard explains, what looks like an injustice is in fact generosity. No one was cheated. No one received less than he deserved. However, some received much more than they deserved. So the reaction we feel in this case is not righteous anger, but envy! “Are you envious because I am generous?” Are we envious because God is generous?
As we look around at the world, our country, our community and our own families, we see many situations in which people get what they do not deserve, while many more do not get what they do deserve. From our human viewpoint, it certainly looks like God is not being fair. But as we reflect more deeply on what we have received from God, what was at first disturbing turns out to be most comforting: none of us gets what he deserves! We cannot possibly earn God’s love and generosity, and yet he pours it out upon us anyway! We do not understand it, but we rejoice to discover it.
What God says through Isaiah captures this astounding truth precisely: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” We can understand human ways and laws; it makes sense to us that people get what they deserve. But we cannot understand, and we are not supposed to be able to understand, the mind of God. His ways are beyond us. He deals with us according to who he is, a God “who is generous in forgiving,” not according to who we are and what we have merited.
When God gives to others what he does not give to us, our challenge as followers of Christ is to accept this without jealousy, envy, or judgment. It is a difficult battle, since our inclination toward envy is a strong one. The sin of envy is particularly grave, because it is not simply a matter of wanting the good that someone else has, but of having ill will toward them because of it. When we cannot rejoice in what is good for another, we cannot love. Envy is the opposite of love of neighbor.
The key to countering our tendency to envy is to build the virtue of gratitude in its place. We can consider, for example, how many times – more than we will ever know in this life – God granted us much more than we deserved, the times we received more than someone else who did more, needed more or suffered more. How can we be resentful if someone else also undeservedly receives God’s gifts, just as we have? God’s unending generosity to us should leave us humbled and grateful. In the light of truth, we can actually come to rejoice at God’s generosity to others, no matter what their situation may appear to be. When we choose to be grateful, the sting of envy fades, replaced by the realization that God’s goodness overwhelms all our measures of goodness and fairness.
The door of God’s mercy is open, no matter when we come to him. Whether we are an early arrival in accepting Christ, or a latecomer in turning our life over to him, Jesus tells us that his mercy, love, and salvation is fully available to us. That is a gift of great encouragement, especially to those who carry the worry and pain of loved ones who have not yet turned to Jesus, or who have left the Church, just drifted away, or even rejected God. This gospel tells us that there is always hope, that God can never be outdone in generosity, that every willing worker is welcome in the vineyard. With this understanding, those of us who have been given the grace to already be working in the vineyard surely will not resent those who come late, but will instead rejoice with them.
We will rejoice not only to work with others but also to work for them. When we see our labor as a participation in the saving work of Christ, we realize it is a blessing to be able to work. St. Paul speaks of the advantage of continuing in this life as an opportunity for “productive toil.” Yet it is even better to come to the end of our day’s work and enter into our heavenly reward, granted by the magnanimous Owner of the vineyard of the world. Which should we prefer? Whatever God wants for us. Whether we remain alive and work or die and be with Christ, we are recipients of his generosity. “Life means Christ; hence dying is so much gain.” Since this is the case, let us go on working, serving, rejoicing, giving thanks in all circumstances, conducting ourselves “in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
Under what circumstances do I experience envy? What is my response to situations that seem unfair to me? Am I grateful for the generosity of the Lord?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.