Children are keenly aware of fairness. If one child gets a cookie of one size, so does another. Justice is to be sought at all costs, in all cases.
Of course, we know that this sense of justice is not possible. As parents, our hearts often are more moved by the needs of the child in greater need. We delight more when our child struggling to speak utters his first word. We celebrate with greater joy when the child who could not find a spouse does.
As it turns out, so does God.
In the parable of the day laborers, we encounter this alternative sense of “fairness.” At first, the economy functions as normal. A landowner hires vineyard workers at dawn, promising them the usual day’s wage. With a full day of work comes a full day of pay.
Then the landowner begins to make poor economic decisions. He finds more workers at 9 a.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. They are invited into the vineyard and given a full day’s wage.
The parable creates a dramatic tension at the delivery of the paychecks. The ones hired last — who did the least work — are paid first, getting the single day’s pay.
The workers hired at dawn must have imagined that they were going to get the mother lode of paychecks. A single day’s pay for working but an hour! This foolish employer should give them triple that.
But the foolish employer doesn’t. He gives the same to all.
If the parable ended there, it would have been stunning enough. But there’s more to be said.
The setting of the vineyard is essential to the parable. Both Israel and, later, the Church are understood as a vineyard. Thus, what is at stake is nothing less than salvation!
The single day’s wage, the salvation offered by Christ, is given to all no matter when one enters the vineyard to work. The faithful Israelite, according to Our Lord, will receive the same wage as the late-entering gentile. After all, “the Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works” (Ps 145:9).
God operates according to an economy of the gift. Salvation is given not because of the quality of human effort but out of love.
And hence the last line of today’s Gospel: “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 20:16).
These words move us toward the radical nature of Christian life itself. It’s not just that God is fair, just and good.
God is love, longing for every human being to worship him. Those who struggle the most to do so are “privileged” by God.
God has a preferential option for the last — the ones who through the gift of divine love will become the first.
A parable like this one forces us to come face to face with our own idolatry of fairness. As God reminds us through the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. ...” (55:8).
God does not operate according to the economy of scarcity that human beings do. Instead, the triune God’s style of household management (the original meaning of economy in Greek as oikonomia) is supreme generosity.
Everyone who works in the vineyard will receive the daily wage of salvation. No matter the hour of their entrance.
And like a parent who rejoices in the neediest child, God will delight in the workers arriving at the latest hour.
If we don’t find this good news, then that’s bad news for us.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.