25th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Matthew 20:1-16
It was a very unusual dream.
I found myself outside an IRS building. They had summoned me for an audit because I had complained that I was paying more than my fair share of taxes. I went in the main entrance, and a secretary brought me to an office door. I knocked.
“Come in, come in!” said a voice from the other side. I opened the door, and then stopped, surprised. Behind the desk was a man who looked to be about my age, with salt-and-pepper hair and beard, but dressed like he was part of the cast of some Biblical epic like Ben-Hur.
“Welcome!”, he said. “Matthew Levi’s the name; tax collecting is my game. Or was, until the Lord called me.” He looked at me with a faint grin and a gleam in his eye.
“Matthew?” I said. “The apostle and evangelist?”
“That’s Saint Matthew, to you!”, he responded, his grin widening. “Or Mister Levi, sir. Either will do!”
“Well, didn’t Saint Mark call you Levi?”
“That impudent little twerp! He used to call Peter ‘Rocky’ and Paul ‘Sha-Sha’, too! How would you like it if someone called you by your last name? Better yet, go up to your bishop and say, ‘Hi, Deeley!’, and see how far you get!”
He chuckled to see my shocked face.
“Chill, dude! Man, you Americans have a lot to learn about humor! You take yourselves way too seriously, and things you should take seriously, you blow off! Up here, we know how to laugh. There are no egos here. No one means anything personally, and no one takes anything personally. Is that Paradise, or what?”
“Amazing” was all I could say.
“Now, then. I’m a busy man, and so are you. Let’s get down to business. What’s this I hear about you complaining about your taxes?”
“Well, I’m more than willing to pay my fair share. But when I look around, and see what others are paying – or aren’t paying…”
“Ah, fairness, fairness! It just ain’t fair! That’s all you folks say down there. And it isn’t just this or that group; it’s everyone: white, black, women, men, rich, poor, gay, straight, old, young, religious, atheist… everyone is looking over at what someone else has, or what they think they have, and yelling about how unfair it all is. You’re like kids that go ballistic if your brother or sister has three M&Ms more than you do! Grow up, for God’s sake!”
“Well, shouldn’t we try to make life fairer for everyone? Shouldn’t we work for more justice? Wouldn’t that make the world a more peaceful place?”
“Yes! Of course! In fact, you could all do a much better job at that than you are doing. You folks do remember that there’s something called Catholic social teaching, right? Check it out! But, really. This fairness thing – is it really about justice for everyone? Or is it about envy? The fear that there’s only so much of anything in the world, and that if you get more, then there must be less for me? The fear that generates rivalries, mistrust, divisions, and even war? That reminds me of a story…”
“Yes. Your Gospel reading for this Sunday, no less!”
“But that story – even if it’s Jesus who tells it – how can that story be fair? There are those workers who were out there all day in the hot sun, and then those who were hired an hour before quitting time. The last ones get a full day’s wage, and those who worked all day get the same. How can that be just? How could we run a business or a society that way? No one would be willing to work hard or to excel at anything.”
“Chill, my friend! The Lord isn’t offering economic policy. He begins the parable by saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’. This parable is about how God works.
Now, to understand this, you need to understand how things were at that time. Farm workers were hired by the day, and paid at the end of the day. They each got one denarius. Just enough to buy what they and their families needed to survive until the next day. No more. No work, no pay. No pay, no one eats that day. Simple as that.
See what the landowner does in the parable. He goes out to hire workers at dawn. He keeps going back, even though he really doesn’t have to – at noon, at three pm, at five pm – and hires everyone he finds. They all need work. Their families all need to eat. He’s trying to be compassionate and charitable.
This is where the parable gets interesting, shall we say! At six pm, when the work day is over, the landowner starts to pay the workers, but he starts with the ones who came last; the ones who worked only one hour. They get a full day’s pay. Their families also need to eat. Those who came earlier also got the same pay. It was the pay they agreed to. They lost nothing. Instead of feeling joyful for the latecomers who could now eat because of the boss’ generosity, they become envious. They claim the boss is unfair, even though the boss’ generosity cost them nothing. They fail to see that if it wasn’t for his generosity, they wouldn’t have had a job, either. It was all gift. There is enough for everyone who seeks it.”
“I’m still not sure about this”, I muttered, as I pondered what I was hearing.
“Okay, think of it this way. My friend Saint Luke – that’s Doctor Luke to you (he said, with a very wide grin) – included one of the Lord’s parables that you call the Prodigal Son. Everyone who hears it feels lots of sympathy for the younger son, even though he really blows it in the beginning. He gets his dad’s inheritance right off and instantly blows it on sex, drugs and rock and roll. Once he’s broke, all his new ‘friends’ leave him. He’s in the pigsty when he wakes up and goes back to his father. His father welcomes him with open arms. His older brother complains that it just isn’t fair. We don’t really relate to the older brother in that story, not very well. So, then. The Lord gives us this story, too. He wants us to feel just like the older brother felt in the Prodigal Son story. And, we do. It’s brilliant, as you’d expect. We all say, ‘It’s not fair!’ when we see how everyone is paid the same, regardless of what they did. What we show by our reactions is this. We don’t understand grace. We think that our work earns something from God. But, it’s all gift. Even the work.”
“Wait”, I said. “The denarius each worker gets in the parable.. is that like our daily bread? Each one of us gets what we need every day from the Lord, then. There’s no need to look with envy on anyone else. The Lord is merciful. What he gives to one doesn’t deprive the other. In fact, when one is blessed, aren’t we all blessed?”
Matthew smiled again. “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven!” he said. “You’re getting warm.”
“So, can’t we say that God is fair – but in a way that is different from our idea of fairness? Isn’t God’s fairness linked with his justice and his mercy? Doesn’t he offer us what we need, every day?”
“Yes.” Matthew said. “I think you’ll pass the audit now. Keep pondering these things. Keep reading the Scriptures. Ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. And don’t forget to study Catholic social teaching. It’s all laid out there, and quite nicely, too.”
I walked out of Matthew’s office, still thinking about that parable and his explanation. Then I found myself awake. All of a sudden, life seemed a little less unfair. The generosity of God is truly awesome.
“By George, I think he’s got it”, I thought I heard a voice whisper. “And, for God’s sake, don’t forget to laugh!”