Reflections for 25th Sunday
We often hear that people who do not work are not entitled to welfare which reflect a mean-spirited judgmentalism. Our own narrow and mean plans, often expressed through government policies, reflect an image of God that is mean and vengeful. Jesus proposes a different way. He overturns our pre-calculations because of his experience of God’s love and goodness. God’s Reign is different to the way of the world where the principles of usefulness, greed and self-promotion rule.
God’s care and love for us is based on who we are, not what we do. Here, where the least are taken care of first, is another expression of the ‘preferential option for the poor’. Like those workers who are paid last, we are called to see God’s compassion and justice at work in our daily lives. The reading calls us to go looking for God’s forgotten ones and treat them, not by standards of human fairness but with compassion and unearned generosity.
In April (2020) Pope Francis, in the face of Covid-19, said that, ‘This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights’ (Letter to the People’s Movements April 12, 2020). The Pope is not alone in making this call. Certainly, as we see in the parable today, survival would be dissociated from work. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) would also question the culture of meritocracy where the powerful justify the appropriation of the common goods and their position of power. Though there is dignity in work, human dignity is not conferred by work. Dignity, worth, comes with being born as human beings. The assertion that UBI would generate laziness in people has been shown to be untrue by studies but this claim is manifested in today’s parable. But, it was not laziness but not being hired that was the problem. One reason enough to defend the UBI is that it would end poverty and advance the redistribution of wealth and social justice. We hear today in the scriptures that God does not act according to our criteria of justice and equality or measure according to merit but according to need and the value of the person. In the reign of God, we live differently and do not support the cry ‘Not fair!’ that comes through in the parable. God’s justice takes into account the greater needs of people. It is different to human justice. We see how survival is uncoupled from work where the late-comers who only worked for one hour had the same right to live, eat, health care for themselves and their families as the others. The Reign of God is a topsy-turvy place where people are treated according to God’s generosity.
In Jesus’ day, there was no social security or safety nets to protect relationships and family life. Commercialisation tore at the fabric of peasant society that left many people landless and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It led to an expansion of ‘the expendables’ – people left destitute and then in turn blamed for their situation. This is clear in the reluctance to assure people who are unemployed in the Job Seeker program that does not provide a living wage and welfare recipients face very difficult obligations are imposed on them.
We are constantly asked to shift our usual way of thinking and to make difficult changes. To have the mind of Christ requires letting go of many convictions and prejudices we take for granted. This is different to our consumer culture, economic system, materialism, individualism, etc. The scriptures present a God who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfastness, love, goodness and compassion. The psalm praises God’s new world of abundance that has been entrusted to us. We need to accept our freedom and have the imagination to care for and promote the humanisation of this world. Paul shares how he tried to live in an alternative world – the world where God reigns; a world where Christ’s compassion and love are evident and tangible in the life and actions of believers where the needs of the other takes precedence over one’s personal satisfaction.
We can easily get caught up in seeing today’s gospel in terms of salvation at the end of life where the late convert can still be taken to heaven or in terms of mere economics. Both defang the words of the gospel. We are asked to open our eyes what constitutes justice. For the Christian, it about the image of God – not whether God exists but whether God is gracious.
In our society the person who works most, earns most, and is praised for it. Jesus seems to be saying in the new age there will be a society where everybody will get the same amount. Maybe Jesus began the thought processes about a universal basic income!! It is about dignity and need, not according to work. Love in the gospels goes beyond human rights. It also assumes the worth of people, human dignity, need for shelter, sustenance, self-determination, and also security. The story in the gospel opens new vistas, a new perspective. It opens the door to a different way of thinking. It sets a different standard: need.
Jesus told his prophetic parable to proclaim to us the ‘economics’ of an openhanded and generous God and not the economics of consumer capitalism, which prefers to keep a large pool of potential workers unemployed, to have a big stick over the labour force. Jesus stressed again and again his experience of God as ‘an unfathomable mystery of goodness’ that smashes all our pre-calculations. His message is so revolutionary that, after twenty centuries, there are still Christians, including the churches, who dare not take it seriously.
We must learn not to confuse God with our narrow petty schemes. We must not detract from His unfathomable goodness by mixing the authentic traits that come from Jesus with features of an avenging God taken from the Old Testament. We need to look and listen beyond the pattern of ‘this world’s’ limitations of heart and imagination and live here and now in the image of God’s reign. It means embodying that presence by listening to Jesus in the gospel in a new way and look at the world from the heart perspective where we are drawn into the compassion of God. It means not viewing the world through the lens of self-interest and being held captive to stingy notions of merit. God will not be limited by our narrow views of justice. God’s mercy is not bounded by the limitations of our compassion. In God’s reign, all live equally from the generosity of God and all deserve in share in God’s goodness now. This includes embodying God’s justice and generosity by opening our hearts and embracing the outcast, welcoming the stranger, opening our hearts to asylum seekers and refugees, being in solidarity with all who suffer from the meanness and exploitation of times. This is parable is not for a world that operates on deals, bargains and narrow rules of fairness. This parable moves according to generosity, and everybody gets enough to live.
So wherever we find ourselves, n our homes, workplaces, schools, universities and places of worship, we are called to challenge assumptions that leave people and ‘our common home’ in great need, and see everyone as beloved sisters and brothers.