My first memories of injustice are line-cutters. Whether we were going to the library, or the cafeteria, or recess, there was almost always someone cutting in line. If it was the big kid, a space was cleared with a few grumbles (it was better than the alternative). If it was the popular kid, he would talk his way in. A few whispered words and he was instantly where he wanted to be; explaining to the rest of us “he’s letting me cut,” or the doubtful “he was saving this spot for me.” It was rare that I said anything, but I always felt the burn of indignation. Neither did I tell the teacher, for fear of the label ‘tattletale.’ Besides, there was almost always one of those around as well.
In our gospel parable this weekend, a rich landowner lines up his day laborers from last to first. He begins by paying those who came late in the day, and then those who “bore the day’s burden and the heat.” Those early workers might have objected then, but when they saw the late workers receive “the usual daily wage” they “thought that they would receive more.” It would be worth the extra wait. It’s easy to sympathize with their vexation when “each of them also got the usual wage.” Where’s the justice? “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.” Why this unfair treatment?
This parable is both about God’s justice and generosity. In part, it addresses the question of the gentiles. The Jews had long known God, followed his commandments, and even given their lives for him. They bore the day’s burden and the heat. Was it fair then to give the same rewards and privileges to the gentiles, those Johnny-come-latelies? Shouldn’t there be some distinction, some bonus for those who had always followed him? But from the beginning, from the call of Abraham, to the Exodus, to the Law, to the prophets and the Davidic kingdom, all the way to Jesus and the Apostles, God “wills everyone to be saved” (1Tim 2:4). That is not unjust to anyone, but purely generous to all.
We are not qualified to handle divine justice: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” But we can strive to imitate his generosity. God’s priority is our salvation. It is the same with the saints: to “become all things to all, to save at least some” (1Cor 9:22). If we are blessed to be working in his vineyard, that should be our priority as well. With regards to heaven, we should be inviting people to cut in, even to the last hour.