Life & Soul

Word this week

The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (1637) by Rembrandt

The 25th Sunday of the Year
Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-24; Mt 20:1-16 (Year A)

“Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, call to him while he is still near. Let the wicked man abandon his ways, and the evil man his thoughts.”

The prophet Isaiah’s call to repentance, coming as the conclusion to a long passage frequently referred to as “the Book of Consolation” (chapters 40-55), demands something more than a cursory acknowledgment of sin. We are called to an entirely different understanding of the way in which we relate to God and each other. We are further invited to examine unquestioned attitudes, and the gulf they represent between a merciful God and the habitual thinking of sinful humanity.

The sinner is invited to turn back to the Lord, who will take pity on him, demonstrating a forgiveness that lies beyond the calculation of self-interest. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways, it is the Lord who speaks. Yes, the heavens are as high above the earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.” These words are not intended to distance the sinner from God. Rather, they underline a promised forgiveness so generous as to be beyond anything we could ask or imagine.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard is a searching examination of our flawed understanding of forgiveness. However many times we hear this familiar parable, I suspect that most will struggle to suppress the thought that its conclusion is simply not fair. This is the measure of a God whose thoughts are not our thoughts.

Underlying the parable there is an unspoken invitation that we, as sinners, should place ourselves alongside the labourers waiting at daybreak for employment. The crucial difference, of course, is that we are longing for something that lies beyond any contract: God’s love and forgiveness.

The unfolding of the parable reveals an uncomfortable truth about ourselves: we long for a forgiveness not conditioned by our sinfulness, and yet struggle to live the unconditional love at the heart of God’s forgiveness.

The labourers, comparing themselves with those who came later, complained that they had been treated unfairly. Something within us wants to agree with them. Should we not rather rejoice that, when it comes to the healing love for which we long, “God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts not our thoughts?

“Why be envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15).