Somewhere within his voluminous works, Benedictine Dom Aelred Graham, prior at Portsmouth Priory during the 1950s and 60s, wrote tersely and perceptively, “God’s justice is subordinate to his mercy.”
Those words should bring a sigh of relief to every reader as each realizes that God’s pointing finger is less descriptive of the divine nature than his caressing arm.
This Sunday’s Gospel guides the believer to the same lesson as those workers in the vineyard who worked only one hour in the late afternoon receive the same recompense as those who “bore the burden of the day’s heat,” as the older translation neatly read. The dismay of the full-day worker is certainly understandable — especially in today’s labor union-conscious society. After all, the laborer is worth his hire, a just wage is a moral imperative, there’s no free lunch, etc. But the master of the vineyard, as the spokesman for the divine nature, quickly advises the disgruntled worker: “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The vineyard master (read God) is indeed just. He cheats no one. But the vineyard master is also pre-eminently generous, outstandingly merciful, exceptionally sympathetic. God’s baffling benevolence is the moral of the story.
Sadly, such heavenly generosity is one of the least appreciated aspects of the divine nature. Many pious believers still view God as stern, judgmental and even condemnatory. It is certainly true that God is no fool, as St. Paul observes, “As a man sows thus shall he reap.” Still, forgiveness is more expressive of God than blame. The pen of Father Frederick Faber, the charming 19th century convert from Anglicanism, well celebrates the biblical generosity and kindness of God: “There’s a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea; there's a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of man's mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word; and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.”
Although generous to a fault, so to speak, God does not wink at sin, nor gloss over wrongdoing, nor indulge transgression. God is truthful as well as merciful and he cannot accept evil as good. Instead the kindness of God, rather than ignore sin, admits sin, but then his effective mercy evokes trust and healing from sinful mankind. Through a prayerful contemplation of God’s mercy and a man’s own sins, the believer is led first to trust God — and trust is difficult. Trust means that the believer is no longer in charge of his own destiny. The believer has handed his fate over to God. There is a risk involved with this submission, a risk that looms understandably large for those of little faith. But this risk is most consoling for those who take God at his word, a word graphically revealed by the loving, suffering, redeeming Jesus Christ. Trust is integral to an authentic Christian faith.
Through a prayerful contemplation of God’s mercy and a man’s own sins, the believer will also be led into the truth. Mankind is indeed unworthy of the kindness of God. God’s kindness is a grace; it is never merited. The expanse of this grace, if personally appreciated, should lead a man to bring his life into conformity with God’s goodness.
God’s goodness, therefore, is not only forgiving; it is also healing. God repairs the damage he finds; he does not merely absolve it. In yielding himself to God’s mercy, the believer also avails himself of God’s healing.