I understand exams are coming up: there’s inevitable around a school, aren’t they? They’re necessary evils, since teachers need to know how their students are going and there aren’t many other ways to find out. Of course, you kick your reading into high gear and try to figure out what’s going to be on the test, what’s important and what isn’t, how thorough your teacher is going to be. The first test with a teacher you never had before is the worst because you don’t know what to expect.
After a few thousand exams, I’ve found it rare that a test was as bad as I thought it would be. I didn’t ace every one and flunked a couple, usually because I took them for granted, but if I was prepared, I wasn’t scared when I turned in my paper. The one thing that would have infuriated everyone is if they got the same grade no matter how well they did.
There was a test in the Gospel reading today, and the workers didn’t pass it. Why didn’t they pass it? They thought the test was about business and it wasn’t. Sure, they had a contract of a standard day’s work for a standard day’s wage, but when they saw latecomers being paid for a full day, they reasonably expected to get more, thinking the whole scale had been moved upward. I would have felt they same way.But they were disappointed, and complained, like you or I probably would.
This parable isn’t about running a business, it’s about God’s mercy. Yes, it’s better to live a virtuous life, live according to God’s law, try to imitate Christ as much as we can. That life is its own reward: we can be at peace with ourselves and those around us the better we can embrace this kind of life. But God’s mercy is unlimited and He gives it to many people, even people we may not think deserve it. The thing that stretches our minds at times is we don’t earn God’s mercy and love: it’s a free gift. Life isn’t a test with redemption the passing grade.
God’s mercy to great sinners should be a comfort to us, just like finding a test that isn’t as bad as we thought it might be. If God can forgive a murderer, then He will forgive me; if God can forgive a thief, a liar, someone who cheats people out of their livelihood, then there’s reasonable hope for me. Even if we break every commandment and burn Bibles in public, we aren’t beyond God’s mercy. Since most of us won’t do this, I find encouragement.
That doesn’t mean don’t try or don’t take God for granted. Taking God for granted can lead to hypocrisy, and the people Jesus condemned in His lifetime were hypocrites. Jesus gives us Himself without conditions or cost, and if there’s test it doesn’t come before we come through the communion line, it comes after.
Christ gives us all of Himself in the Eucharist, freely and without reservation. He doesn’t ask us how long we worked for it, how much we’ve labored in the vineyard. As Saint Augustine said: “God loves each of us as if there was only one of us.” God’s love for us in Christ isn’t the reward for what we’ve done, but the starting point for everything we do.