A group of people with a priest stood on the side of the road holding a banner that read: “You are on the way to perdition. Abandon it before it’s too late!” The priest’s frustration eventually reached boiling point as drivers completely ignored the group. “Why don’t they listen?!” – he burst out. One of the parishioners turned to him and shyly said: “Father, perhaps you should write on the banner: ‘Turn around, the bridge ahead has collapsed.’”
At first glance, today’s first reading looks like a classic call for repentance: “Let the wicked man abandon his way, the evil man his thoughts.” We might expect the inevitable, time-honoured “fire and brimstone” to follow up, topped by “eternal damnation” and so on. The prophet Isaiah’s audience would have expected that, in much the same way as generations of Jewish and Christian believers listening to Saturday or Sunday sermons, respectively. Harsh words, fiery language and warnings of damnation have been used for centuries and consequently entrenched the perception of Judeo-Christian religious tradition as a condemnatory way of stripping life of any joys and pleasures. Although in the Church this kind of preaching is more or less a thing of the past, the tradition of quick condemnation lives on in our society. Religious dogma has been replaced by a progressive one, and those who don’t adhere to it can be labelled with unpleasant terms and names or “cancelled”. Condemnation as a way of dealing with challenging attitudes or ideas has been so popular because it’s easy on a few levels. Firstly, it inadvertently confirms that I am right and the other person is wrong. Secondly and consequently, there’s no point in discussing anything. Thirdly, condemning others absolves me of my own shortcomings and misdeeds and makes me feel superior. Consequently, that leads to a sense of entitlement. And this is what Jesus addressed in today’s parable.
We have to remember that St Matthew addressed his gospel to Christian communities of Jewish origin, people who had been raised in the traditions and beliefs of the Mosaic faith. Historically, a huge chunk of their identity was based on being distinctively different from their neighbours. Having paid a heavy price for keeping their identity intact over centuries, they were very protective of it and combined it with a sense of superiority. This is a common characteristic of many small nations vulnerable to powerful neighbours. The Jewish fellow Christians of St Matthew’s held a strong conviction that they had speedy boarding printed on their tickets to heaven while the Gentiles had to wait in the slow queue. The central idea of the Christian faith that salvation is equally offered to the Jews and Gentiles due to Jesus’ redeeming death and resurrection was hard to accept by those who had meticulously followed all the rules, prescriptions and traditions of the Mosaic faith. At the same time, the Gentiles (in their view) had had fun while they wallowed in debauchery and sin and had only recently come to the faith. In fact, this was the main theological and pastoral challenge of the primal Church, testified by virtually all the letters of St Paul. The logic of the kingdom of God is different from the business model of “a fair wage for fair work” because “our God […] is rich in forgiving”. It goes so much against our sense of natural justice that through the prophet Isaiah, God had to remind us: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways.”
The parable made the case for God’s generosity in two ways. First, the workers for hire waited in the marketplace to be picked up by potential employers. Some were lucky to be hired at dawn, agreed on a fair payment and went to work. However, those left behind were similarly keen to work, but nobody hired them. They were unemployed, but not through their own fault. They stayed at the marketplace, hoping for an opportunity to come their way. In a sense, they did everything they could, but nobody offered them any work. The vineyard owner was their saviour, offering them employment at different times of the day. They gratefully accepted the job as well as the wage. The second way the parable showed God’s generosity was the wage. One denarius for a workday was a standard salary for hired workers. In the gospel, it symbolised God’s gift, which – for a lack of words in my vocabulary – is all. Consequently, there cannot be more of all or less of all. We actually experience that when we receive communion. You always receive the entire Christ, regardless of the physical size of the piece of consecrated bread.
We might consider ourselves fortunate to have already found the faith. But it shouldn’t make us feel boastfully superior to those who have not. We built up this community so that we can grow and strengthen our faith in order to go out and be witnesses of God’s love and mercy to those who are still seeking the truth. It’s not enough to tell them that the bridge ahead has collapsed; show them the alternative, safe route to the Father.