Most of us seem to have an inherent sense of justice, even if it seems to get a bit skewed at times. How many have ever heard a child say, “That's not fair”? In fact, most children will say this on a regular basis, usually about the time they find out their bedtime is before their friends', or when they're not allowed to do something that their friends are allowed to do. Our sense of justice might even kick in when reading the parable in today's Gospel. We might feel that the workers who spent all day toiling in the hot sun were being unjustly treated by requiring them to accept the same wage as those who only worked an hour. To take this view, however, would miss that the point of the parable is to demonstrate the generosity of God towards all of us.
If this scenario occurred today, we would be rightly up in arms regarding the treatment of these workers. Justice would demand that those workers who were in the vineyard all day get far better pay than those who only worked for the last hour of the day. Special interest groups would probably be picketing the landowner. Lawyers would be lining up to sue on behalf of one worker or another. Advocates for vineyard workers would be petitioning Congress to pass a vineyard minimum hourly wage. From a human vantage, all these groups would be working to ensure equal treatment of each worker, making sure they get paid what they're due.
I don't want to belittle the fact that there are workers today who are not receiving a fair wage, even in our own country. Likewise, I don't want to belittle the efforts of those who struggle to ensure that all workers receive a just and livable wage. Their efforts are laudable and do good to improve the life of these underpaid and overworked workers, but to take this approach to Our Lord's parable misses the point.
In this parable, Jesus is demonstrating the incredible generosity that God has for us. God, our Heavenly Father, wants all of us to accept His gift of grace. Some of us have been followers of Our Lord from almost the moment of our births. Others came to Him after some time, say after high school. Still others came much later in life. Finally, there are some who came to believe in Our Lord on their death bed, receiving Baptism or Confession literally moments before their lives on earth ended.
On a human level, this might seem unfair, but the first reading reminds us that God's ways are not our ways. God wants all of us to be saved, not only those who have been “good” Christians. While we might be tempted to call out “Not fair!” when a notorious sinner gets to confess his sins and receive absolution on his death bed, while we struggle along trying to follow Our Lord's commands, we should instead rejoice that another sinner received God's gift of salvation.
We have all been given the same promise, and will receive the same reward of God's grace regardless of when we respond to Our Lord. Those of us who have been Christians longer will not receive a “special” grace merely for our longevity. Likewise, those who are new Christians will not receive a “probationary” grace, much like a new driver receives a probationary license. The graces we receive as Christians are the same, graces that will help us to receive the final gift of eternal life.
As Christians, we have received the benefit of God's generosity. May we rejoice every time we see someone else experience this generosity.