One of things I don’t miss from my student days is taking tests. Yes, they’re a necessary evil, your professors do need to know who well you’re assimilating the material. So every few weeks, or every few days, or if you’re really unlucky, every day there’s a test or quiz of some sort. It’s part of life for a while. Right now, I’m getting to the age where the only tests I have to take are ones I hope to get negative results on.
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.
The attitude of the first group of workers is pretty common. There are people now who think others are undeserving, who don’t belong, and feel they have a right to cast them out of their own sense of justice. There are those who believe that others don’t deserve to be in this country; there are those who believe certain others don’t belong in our Church, or in Christianity. There are people who want to limit rights to protest, to make people show the same kind of reverence for flag and country or for faith they do. There are people who would deny mercy to people they consider lazy, or angry, because people absolutely deserve what they get and we’re going to make sure they get what they deserve. There are always people who want to set the standard for the world, write it off as God’s Law or civil law or unbreakable convention that all good people have to follow. We want to punish people for not being what we think they should be, and we don’t want to take responsibility for having these attitudes.
God’s mercy is for all of us, without question, reservation, or conditions. God is merciful no matter what the sin or the situation: God knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us complete in spite of that. God’s punishment isn’t about laziness or disrespect or disloyalty, it’s about hypocrisy and trying to take His role of judge for ourselves, making the world live by our standards and not His. We don’t even have the job of making people live by God’s standard.
Our work is about compassion, our work is about mercy. Our work is about reaching out to people, not pushing people away. Our work is about bringing others close to God, making people be at home with God. Our reward is the work itself, we do what we do because it’s right, not because we expect to get praised or rewarded for it.
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. When we fully accept God’s unlimited mercy for all, we can let go of a lot of things, including the need to make others do what we want them to in God’s name. This is liberation: we’re not supposed to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, or be the judges of the human race. It’s a test we pass by being like Christ, the master gardener who treats all His workers with equal love.