In the parable which we just heard, the master seems unjust, unfair. At least the workers thought that, because they grumbled at their master because of his inequality of their wages: a denarius for each worker, despite the significant difference that existed between workers in relation to the hours spent in the vineyard. They said: These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat (Mt 20:12). According to the original context, this deals with salvation offered to the Gentiles at the last moment, all the while the Jews had worked in the vineyard of the Lord from the beginning.
The master, however, denies being unfair. He agreed to pay each worker a denarius for their work and, thus, protests: Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? … Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? (Mt 20:13).
Therefore, on the one hand, there’s the claim that the master is unfair. On the other hand, there’s the claim to the contrary, namely that the master is generous. Who is right? If the master is a symbol of God in the parable, and the workers are symbols of all of us, we can ask the question in these terms: Does God treat us unfairly? Does he act arbitrarily? Does he not like us? Obviously, there is something which needs to be clarified. Let’s try to respond to these questions, reflecting on two aspects of the parable: the compensation given by the master and the way in which the workers receive this compensation.
Each worker receives as compensation one denarius. A denarius was the normal day’s wage for a worker, thus a completely normal wage. But what does this denarius mean? What is it that we receive from the Lord?
On the divine coin, the money no longer carries the image of Caesar (cf. Mt 22:19-20), but rather the image of the Son of God, because Christ is the stamp of the very substance of the Father (cf. Heb 1:3) and the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). The payment of this denarius, this special coin is Christ himself. If the compensation is Christ himself, which is love, which is life, this means that the gift is infinite, without measure. If the same infinite gift is given to each worker, then, it’s true that the master is generous. Who can lament of having received a wage of infinite value?
The reaction of the workers
Even if we admit that the compensation is infinite, though, the question of “justice” remains. There is the one who gets saved at the very last moment (for example, he who converts as an adult and prepares for baptism during Lent) and he who has borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat (Mt 20:12), for example, the one who was baptized as an infant. Where is God’s justice in all of this? We can be satisfied with the word of God cited by Isaiah: for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8). This is true, but to cite this passage isn’t enough, because man is always in a search to understand things. How can we reconcile the equality of the divine gift with the inequality of human merit?
There is a solution. We receive this infinite reward of God’s according to our own individual capacity. The Lord will judge us according to our works, but it’s not a mechanical judgment, imposed heavy-handedly by a judicious authority. We judge ourselves. Each of us recieves according to our capacities. In fact, sin reduces my capacity to receive God’s infinite gift. Laziness, a lack of dedication, fear, vices, character flaws reduce my capacity – all of these things are limits imposed on me by myself, which impede me from receiving the fullness of God’s gift. Perhaps I’m only able to perceive a part, but the Lord wants to give me everything, and since he loves me, he tries to increase my capacity to receive the infinite compensation of his love. St. Augustine affirms that it’s precisely God’s desire on our part that increases our capacity, the desire exercised in prayer (cf. Letter 130 Addressed to Proba).
Therefore, regarding the gift, everything depends on God. And regarding how we receive that gift, everything depends on us. The two realities go together. In the spiritual life, there is a synergy between the action of God and the action of man, even if the infinite gift always surpasses our ability to receive it.
The master in this parable gets mentioned in our Rule. St. Benedict meditates on the true meaning of the action of the master saying: “And the Lord, seeking His laborer in the multitude to whom He thus cries out, says again, “Who is the man who will have life and desires to see good days” (RB, prologue). We are used to thinking of the man who seeks God, but we are less used to considering God as he who seeks out man. At the end of the day, we can ask: What kind of God do we have? Do we have an unfair God? No! Do we have an indifferent God? No! Instead, we have a good and generous God, who seeks out man – quarens Dominus – and who gives man a reward of infinite value: Jesus Christ, our Lord.
(Translated from the original Italian by B. Gonzalez.)