Imagine that you are one of those people in our Gospel reading who were hired at the beginning of the day, perhaps around 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, and then labored under the hot sun for almost 12 hours. With an hour left of work, you were joined by another group. And then you ended up getting paid the same amount as they did! Be honest – I think just about everyone in that first group would be pretty upset.
This parable Jesus tells is a challenging example of what God proclaims to the prophet Isaiah in our first reading: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” So, if you find today’s Gospel challenging, there is good reason: God’s ways are indeed far above our ways, sometimes to the point of seeming almost incomprehensible to us.
However, there is a still a logic to them – it’s just a logic that is difficult for us to grasp. Let us look at this Gospel reading in light of our first reading from Isaiah. He says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found…let the scoundrel forsake his way…let him turn to the Lord for mercy.”
God’s mercy then is radically different from the mercy of human beings. Different in the sense that it is so much greater than what we could imagine or what we might even consider fair. And we see that manifested in the Incarnation – how God sent His Son to become man, and to suffer and die on the Cross so that humanity would be redeemed of their sins – the innocent being punished for the guilty. Nothing demonstrates more than this how radical God’s mercy is.
And we experience for ourselves this radical mercy in the sacraments, particularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when we receive in that moment God’s forgiveness, no matter what we have done, no matter how many times we have done it, no matter what anyone else might think of us. God forgives us.
If we read today’s Gospel in this light, we catch a glimpse of God’s radical mercy – and generosity. As with so much of Scripture, there are multiple interpretations and layers of meaning. But the Church Fathers often understood this parable of the landowner and the laborers as a metaphor for our lives: God of course is the landowner, who calls us again and again to respond to Him, to become laborers in his vineyard – i.e. his disciples carrying out his mission, his work in the world. God calls again and again throughout our lives, and people respond to Him at different stages in their lives. Some heed this call when very young and dedicate their whole lives in service to Him. And others respond later in life, even up until the very end of their lives. “Seek the Lord while he may be found” – that is right now: as long as we’re living and breathing, God is calling us to turn to Him and to serve Him in his vineyard. Even up until the last moment of one’s life, the possibility of turning to the Lord remains.
There is an often-cited story from the life of St. John Vianney: a woman whose husband had thrown himself off a bridge into a river came to him very distraught and fearful for the salvation of her husband’s soul. St. John Vianney said to her, “Do not worry; in that moment between the bridge and the river, your husband repented of his sins and his salvation is assured.” Imagine that – a person could be the worst sinner throughout his life and yet repent of his sins on his deathbed, and in that simple act of repentance God would forgive him, and his salvation would be assured. That is God’s radical mercy and generosity. The all-too-human response would be to punish, to seek revenge for the harm he had caused in his life. But God’s ways are not our ways.
Of course, we might then ask ourselves: if this is the case, then why can’t I just live my life however I want and then repent on my deathbed? That way I’ll have the best of both worlds: all the pleasure of this life AND eternal salvation! But it is very dangerous to presume upon God’s mercy. The Scriptures also say, “No one makes a fool of God (Gal. 6:7).” And furthermore, this way of thinking presumes that following the Lord and dedicating our lives in service to him is somehow wasting our lives or cheating ourselves out of a really good life. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Perhaps you have heard the expression: virtue is its own reward. Or put another way: serving the Lord is its own reward. Following God is not necessarily easier than doing whatever we want (although I would argue that life is actually much more complicated and unhappier if we don’t strive to follow God), but it is certainly much more fulfilling. So those who respond to God’s call early in life are not missing out on anything, despite the challenges and difficulties they face in serving him. In fact, their lives will be richer and more fulfilling.
This Sunday is Catechetical Sunday which launches our faith formation for the year. And the theme of this year’s faith formation is “Living the Eucharist”. Living out our faith, putting our faith into practice. Giving ourselves to others as the Lord gives himself to us. Accepting God’s call to labor in his vineyard. Everyone is called by the Lord to this. But the work that the Lord calls us to differs from person to person, and it differs at different stages in our life.
But one task that the Lord gives to all of us is to pass on our faith to the next generation. That is our greatest responsibility as a parish. And as the parish serving the Grand Valley Allendale campus, one of the ways we do that is by seeking to evangelize the students of Grand Valley – to help them encounter Christ, grow in their relationship with Him, and then to likewise become laborers in the Lord’s vineyard, by sharing that faith with others.
And for all of you who are parents, one of your greatest responsibilities is to form your children in the faith. Every household is known as the “domestic church” – it is a small assembly of believers, and it is the responsibility of all parents to help your children learn about their faith and grow in their relationship with Christ, so that they too might respond to God’s call. Don’t worry; you are not alone in this. We are here to help you. I encourage the parents of our young people in faith formation this year to read the letter John Graveline has sent out about how you can help your children grow in their faith.
This is our responsibility as followers of Christ, but also our great privilege. Following and serving Jesus Christ is its own reward. And when we do this, we will experience God’s radical mercy and generosity in this life and the next.