At first take, the parable of the workers in the vineyard brings up the question of fairness. Shouldn’t the vineyard owner compensate the workers who worked all day more than those who arrived mid-day, late afternoon, or at the eleventh hour? The full day workers were paid the agreed upon wage for a day’s work. The issue was that the latecomers received that same wage, and they were paid before the original workers. The vineyard owner reminds the offended workers that they were indeed paid appropriately. He was treating the latecomers with generosity and mercy.
What is Jesus trying to teach us? I believe that He is trying to make a comparison to the Kingdom of Heaven and to the mercy and grace of God. God’s mercy is beyond our human comprehension. His love for each of us is an ocean of grace. He awaits our response, whether it is immediate, hesitant, late in the game, or near our death. His mercy cannot be measured in human terms.
I find much hope in this parable. I find hope on two fronts – first as one who hears the call and secondly as one who seeks others’ response to the call.
Let me start with my own response to the call to the Vineyard, so to speak. God has called me to the Vineyard throughout my life. Sometimes, I have been a distracted worker, perhaps doing my tasks, but not always finding meaning or purpose in what I was called to do. Sometimes, I am a Vineyard worker who is multitasking and not properly balancing all that I am called to do. Over time, I have come to appreciate working in the present moment, not worrying about the next task or my ability to perform. I find that regular prayer keeps me grounded. When I fail in my duties, I find that prayer allows me to return to the Vineyard with a better focus and a renewed sense of purpose.
Now the question of “compensation” in the Vineyard comes up. I pray that at the end of my life, my work in the Vineyard will be found pleasing to God. I realize that nothing that I do can really earns my way to Heaven. If I get there, it is by God’s grace. Yet, I am called to serve, and I hope that I serve faithfully. I see my work as certainly not perfect, sorely lacking at times. Yet God has rewarded my flawed efforts with many graces and a flood of mercy. I have received far more graces than I could ever earn, and for that I am most grateful. Like the mid-day and late-day workers of the parable, I have been compensated far more than I deserve.
Now let us focus on the response of others to their call to the Vineyard. I see this parable as deeply comforting to me when I think of some people throughout my life who have been called to the Vineyard, yet have not responded. Some were once on the Vineyard and left. Some seem to be searching for something, but they know not what. I have met some who do not know the Vineyard at all. Others have a distant knowledge of it, but have little interest in learning more. Some are living a lifestyle which is counter to the tenets and mission of the Vineyard. I have deep concern, but I try to place each of these people into God’s hands. After all, He loves each of them with a love beyond my understanding. I trust that God continues to call to them, and even an eleventh hour response will be met with an outpouring of grace from God.
When I need some extra reassurance of this parable in action, I think of Saul, a persecutor of the early Church. His call to the Vineyard was unmistakable. He was knocked off his horse and blinded. Then he had a mystical encounter with Jesus, and heard Christ’s plea, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” We all know the ending. Saul converted and was then known as Paul, who became the great disciple to the Gentiles and martyr for his faith. St. Paul was called to the Vineyard, perhaps mid-day, but He certainly worked that Vineyard, bringing himself and many others to their eternal reward.
Sometimes, persistent prayer is instrumental in someone responding to the call of the Vineyard. I think of St. Augustine, who lived a life far, far from the Vineyard. He knew of Christianity from his devout mother, Monica, who prayed for fifteen years for his conversion. As we know, the prayers of a persistent mother are powerful. St. Augustine joined the Vineyard in the mid-day. After his full conversion, he went on to become a priest and then bishop. He is one of our great Church theologians, philosophers, and Doctors of the Church. As he famously said in his Confessions, “Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you.” He answered the call to the Vineyard late, but what a brilliant and inspired worker he was!
Some people make the Vineyard known to others and not even realize it. As the quote attributed to St. Francis states, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” For this example, I think of my own mother. My mom was a very devout Catholic who lived her life in a loving and authentic way. She lost her father to cancer when she was four years old. She and her two siblings were raised in Depression years by their faith- filled Irish immigrant mother. Catholic faith was part of the air that they breathed.
My mom was a high school teacher in Boston when I was young. She was a faithful wife and mother of four very active children. She was an intelligent, genuine, and humble person who lived for God and her family. One day, she came home from school and was bewildered by an encounter she had with a fellow unidentified teacher, a young woman in her early thirties. My mom was in her late fifties at the time. From what she recounted, this young teacher came to her privately, telling her that she was right all along. Evidently, the young woman had decided to end her relationship with her long-time boyfriend. She had been away from her Catholic faith and had made life choices that were counter to her upbringing. She said that she wanted what my mom had- a happy marriage and family with peace in her life. My mom was taken aback. She had never discussed this woman’s personal life circumstances at all. In fact, she had no idea that this woman was having such internal struggles. She was so pleased that this young friend and colleague had carefully assessed her life and had chosen to return to the Church. My mom’s life and example had made a profound impact on her. Without knowing it, my mom had called this young woman back to the Vineyard.
This is the power of God’s grace and mercy. Sometimes, God calls directly and profoundly, as he did with St. Paul. Frequently, He calls in response to our prayerful petitions, as He did to St. Augustine after St. Monica’s tireless prayers. Other times, He chooses to call others through us, by way of our words and example. Some hear the call early in life, some mid-day, or even at the eleventh hour. No matter the circumstances or timing, God rejoices when any one of His children hears His call. He wishes salvation for all. His love and mercy are beyond our comprehension. As Isaiah says in our first reading, ”For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
How have you heard God’s call? How can we be God’s instruments in calling others to Him?