Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Parables that make people mad

Today's Gospel is one of them. You know, the parables that stick in your craw because there's just something totally unfair about them. There's the parable of the wily steward who rewrites the bills so that when he's fired, he'll have "friends" to go to. Then the one about the hidden treasure: Shouldn't the finder have informed the original owner of the true value of the field before negotiating to buy it? (In my heart of hearts, I know that the Prodigal Son is one of these parables, too, but it's not very comfortable finding myself an ally of that whiny elder brother...) And then there's today's story of the workers in the vineyard, paid the same whether they worked twelve hours or only one.
Of course, the whole point of a parable is that it sticks in your craw: it's meant to keep at you like an itch until you discover the real message, which is fully redeeming. Even today's parable! It's not about social justice (paying so disproportionately for labor isn't "justice," although we could still draw some valuable social justice conclusions from the story); it's not about people's varying degrees of merit, either. It's a description of GRACE: the workers who were hired toward evening didn't have a contract to rely on; they didn't strike a deal with the owner about pay rates. They took him at his word, "I will give you what is just." Like Abraham, they believed, and in the end, just as their faith in the owner was justified, so they were justified in trusting him. They were not paid "according to their works" but "good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over." The disproportion between their labor and their pay was a sign of the overflowing goodness of the owner, not a reflection on the relative worth of the laborers--which was the conclusion the first-hired workers drew. (They were seeing things as if it were all about them; very subjective--as our culture is today.)
The parables are not about us: they are about God. Almost all of them seem to begin with "The Kingdom of heaven is like.." And that expression "the Kingdom of heaven" is a circumlocution for "God."
I can't help thinking in terms of the 4th Joyful mystery of the rosary: Simeon and Anna at the Temple, rejoicing to see the Messiah. These very elderly people had "borne the burden of the day and of the heat" for decades, counting on God to fulfil his promise. And when he did, they did not hoard the beauty that had been revealed, but shared it freely--Anna, especially. She did not presume that people would have to wait until they, too, were eighty-four and had spent long years in fasting and prayer at the Temple before they could receive the Good News. Instead, she spread the wealth around to everyone who was awaiting the Consolation of Israel.

No comments: