The gospel parable told by Jesus recounts the events of a single day, from sunrise to
evening. It is a story of Jesus’ time and place and culture. The props of the story
were familiar to his readers; a vineyard, a landowner, workers employed and
unemployed, and the issue of a just wage. Like all the parables, the story is
somewhat provocative. It tries to provoke us into expanding our understanding of
the nature of the God we believe in. It is also a parable of the last judgment. It is a
reminder that the last can be first and that we should never presume that, because
we have worked hard and long for the gospel that we are at the front of the queue.
One of the words for heaven in the Irish language, ‘flaitheas’ suggests generosity.
God is seen as the great host who provides generously for his guests. Heaven is seen
as the generosity of God in action. This is a God who is rich in forgiving, who is rich
in all things and who is correspondingly generous.
This generosity of God is at the heart of the Gospel story. Those who arrive at the
last moment are treated generously by the landowner. God’s kindness satisfies
justice and then goes further so that the less deserving (in the eyes of the world)
may receive as much as the more deserving. God rewards human beings according
to an unexpected kindness, goodness and generosity.
The ways and the thoughts of God are not ours, we are told. That can be obvious
sometimes. Other times we try vainly to understand the ways and thoughts of God
by thinking that God operates in ways which are human. We do an injustice to God
by thinking that God is confined by the same limitations as ourselves.
‘The heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways; my thoughts
above your thoughts’, as the prophet Isaiah tells us in the first reading. God created
us, we are told, in his own image and likeness. We are constantly tempted to return
the favour and mould God in our image and likeness.
The Gospel story makes two points very clearly. God is generous even to those who
come at the last minute. God’s ways are not our envious ways. Jesus tells the parable
to teach us about the kingdom of God and about the generous God we believe in
and he has the landowner figure in the parable leave us with a teasing question,
‘Why be envious because I am generous? God is rich in forgiving, rich in reward, rich
in judgement. God is generous, flaithúil as we say in Irish – and that generosity
awaits all who seek God, who turn to God, and who remain faithful.