Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-6
‘When God Doesn’t Make Sense’.
1. The first reading today sets the tone for the Gospel and the lesson therein. Isaiah says, “Seek the Lord while he may he be found; call him while he is near. Let the scoundrel forsake his way and the wicked his thoughts; let him turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.” When we look at the ways of God and how He treats his children, it seems that His ways do not make sense to us most of the time. Take today’s Gospel, for example; Jesus tells us a parable of the landowner who, after inviting workers to work in his vineyard at different hours, paid the same amount regardless of when they started and ended. And to make matters worse, the latecomers were paid first. Those who started work early were angry. It seemed so unfair. Does this make sense? In the Bible we note that many times, God doesn’t make sense to us. But he warns us: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
2. In the parable, those who worked since morning should be paid more, or at least, they should be given additional tips to compensate for the number of hours they worked. Their anger and jealousy would seem justifiable. After all, the latecomers were the sinners who listened to the preaching of Jesus and repented. The early workers were the Pharisees. They were angry because the sinners repented, entered God’s kingdom late, and were getting the same reward as themselves – eternal life. It just doesn’t make sense.
3. The whole teaching of Christ doesn’t seem to make sense either. Consider the teaching on the celebration at the return of one sinner who repented over the ninety-nine who do not need repentance (cf. Lk. 17:7). Or the celebration over the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son (cf. Lk 15). Is God more concerned about sinners than the righteous? The senselessness of God is more apparent when one reads the teaching of Christ in Mt. 5:38-47. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to the law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Who does that? Does this make sense? Again, in Mt. 18:21-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus answered I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” So why do God’s actions seem so senseless based on how we human beings act? Why is God’s way so different from ours? Why should God go out in search of his children who wandered away from him?
4. God’s standard of mercy and forgiveness might make us uncomfortable. In our hearts, we may cling to the retributive justice of ‘an eye for an eye.’ For this kind of justice, Mahatma Gandhi reminded us that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth would make the whole world blind and toothless. Something about God’s gracious and unmerited compassion seems a bit unfair to us. Thus, it appears that God doesn’t make sense. This is why we find it hard to be practicing Christians. We want to be like God. “The serpent said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (Gen.3:4-5). Since God’s ways do not make sense to us, we feel that perhaps God wants to keep us in the dark, preventing us from being wise and masters of our destiny. This was the thought process before the fall. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So, she took some of its fruit and ate it, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Gen. 3:6).
5. When we do not accept God’s ways, we make our own God in our image and likeness. (cf. Exodus 32:1). “When the people became aware of Moses’ delay in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will be our leader.” When God’s ways do not make sense, and his teaching seems too difficult, we look for an easy way out and begin to do things our way. We may stop listening to the Church and its teachings, stop reading the Bible, and begin to look for what works for us. Church becomes routine and boring or obsolete, and prayer a waste of time. We pursue a life of comfort and run away from the cross of any kind. And yet St. Paul reminds us that “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25).
6. The Gospel of today teaches us about the need to repent and follow God’s ways. There is often a vast difference between a man’s profession of faith and his actions. If God’s ways do not make sense to us, imagine what our children think of our ways of doing things. Please do not give up on your defiant and rebellious sons and daughters; be hopeful; maybe, one day, they will repent and return to obey you. Perhaps they, too, think that you are not making sense.
7. The landowner’s answer should help us ponder God’s ways over our own. “On receiving it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” He said to one of them in reply, “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me about the daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ This parable teaches us that it doesn’t matter when we receive the faith; the reward is the same: eternal life. This is God’s gift unmerited. It is grace. God’s gift is not negotiated. We may have served in ministry for 30 and 40 years or just one year, the blessing is the same. So let us pray that God may give us the spirit of final perseverance to remain faithful in the Church and the service of God and his people till the end. Amen.
Rev. Augustine Etemma Inwang, MSP