It is not fair: At the Nairobi airport, I was once in the company of a large European family – the parents with seven children of varying ages – waiting to board a plane. At one point, the mother began to distribute chocolates to her restless children. Everyone was given a chocolate bar each. Finally, there was one left over. The mum gave it to the eldest girl. One of the other children, who might have been about four years old, blurted out in a spontaneous cry for justice, in a tone that was also uniquely childish, “Mom, that is not fair!” They all had a hearty laughter. While they admired the four-year old for her strong sense of justice, I suppose, they were also laughing at the silliness of such a comment.
How silly am I, when I cry out to God, “That was not fair!” This is what we hear read in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in the gospel reading of today (Mt 20:1-16). To our cries against God’s generosity towards the wicked people and his lack of immediate reward for the just, he humbly reminds us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways” (Is 55:8).
God gives more than one’s due: The classical definition of justice is, ‘giving someone their due’. Lady Justice is blindfolded. She offers justice rather blindly not considering one’s background or needs. This is not the justice of God. The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard portrays a God who gives them more than what is their due. We could say, God gives them – he gives us – more than what we deserve. But the fact is we merit nothing in front of God. We could say, God gives people what they need. What people need is very relative. I would rather think, God just enjoys giving for its own sake. When we bemoan his generosity, he gently chides us, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Mt 20:15).
Then why should I work hard? Often we apply our human logic of justice to our relationship with God: if you need to be rewarded by God, be good. If you are evil, God will punish you. In the words of the gospel text of today, Jesus gently reminds us that this logic does not hold good for God. God offers a full day’s wage even to those who worked only for an hour. Now my wicked human logic asks, if this is the case with God, then why should I work in his vineyard at all – oh fine, after all everyone in the parable did work, at least for an hour. But why should I work so hard in the vineyard? To me the answer is very simple: I work hard in his vineyard not because any delayed reward but because I just enjoy it. To be privileged to work is itself a reward. I wish to be good, not for a pie in the sky, but because it is good for me to be good. I feel gratified being good. Even being able to work for an hour in the vineyard of the Lord – just to be able to enjoy the gift of human life – is a reward in itself. The one denarius at the end of the day is but a bonus.
Yes, “the Lord is just in all his ways and loving in all his deeds” (Ps 144:17). His justice can never be separated from his love.