Thus, the First Shall Be Last, and the Last Shall Be First
In one of the first years that Seton had a volleyball team, one of our players on the court got upset during a game and said, “It isn’t fair!” A teammate turned to her and said, “Life isn’t fair.” A referee’s bad call, a hostile crowd’s interference, a piece of faulty equipment – any of these things can seem to make a game’s outcome unfair because maybe the better team doesn’t win. The various disappointments in sports can be a microcosm to the greater disappointments that we face in life. We live through the agonies of sports and of the rest of life tranquilly because we know that this world is transitory and there is a greater good beyond these disappointments.
But then we read the Gospels and it seems that the Kingdom of God isn’t fair either. The title of this post is the conclusion reached after the parable of the laborers hired to work in the Master’s vineyard. Some of the workers were hired early, some later and some much later, yet at the end of the day they all received the same wage.
And this isn’t the only parable or actual happening in the Gospels that rub against our sense of justice. There is the parable of the prodigal son who seems to make out better in the end than his faithful, hardworking brother. There is the story of Mary who rests at the feet of Jesus while Martha works her fingers to the bone and seems to have a reason to complain about her sister. All three of our examples involve work that seems to be unappreciated by Our Lord.
In The Merchant of Venice Portia tells Shylock, “Consider this: That in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”
The Kingdom of God, then, is not ultimately about justice. It must mean that there is a greater good than justice that is the essence of eternity and the acquiring of this greater good is not ultimately a matter of our own labor.
In the magazine Magnificat there was a guided Lectio Divina of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In considering the conclusion, “Thus, the last shall be first and first shall be last”, St. Prosper, a disciple of St. Augustine, was quoted: “The same reward was given to all the laborers in order that those who had sweated with much labor, without receiving more than the last, might understand that they had received a gift of grace, not a reward of work.”
Obviously, the Gospels and St. Prosper are not saying that our work is unimportant. Some notable heretics have gone off the deep end there before, and we shall not follow them. The Master returned time and again to call laborers into the vineyard, if they had chosen not to heed the call or not to work when they arrived, then they would not have been following the Master’s will. I also think that we can look too much at the end of the story and think that the early arriving workers had no advantage, and in fact had the disadvantage of extra work for no extra pay compared to those who came late. But the ones who were idle for a long part of the day had to carry the worry of perhaps not having any money to buy food for supper for themselves and their families. They carried a burden much heavier than toiling in the heat of the sun. The early arrivers had a security from the start of their labor – they knew exactly what was promised them, what was required of them and knew the Master to be true to his word. They had a security that the late arrivals lacked for at least part of the day.
The Prodigal, St. Martha and the early arriving laborers all grumbled about their work and/or the lack of work of others. As this month, which has Labor Day in its beginnings, comes to an end, let us give special thanks to the Master for the work He has given us in the Vineyard and the security that it affords knowing that it is His Vineyard in which we work and His grace that is the reward beyond what justice could ever provide.
Jezu, ufam Tobie.