IN THIS Sunday’s parable, those who have worked the longest hours are resentful that those hired at the end of the day receive the same wage. It may initially seem surprising that the hardest worker in the story is, in fact, the master of the vineyard. As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis observes, he “exhausts himself in making sure that no person who is looking for work will be excluded from the enterprise of his vineyard and, therefore, from a relationship with himself as its owner”.
On five occasions, the text refers to his “going out” (exelthen) to search for workers. In the New Testament, this verb is one used to speak of the self-emptying love of Christ in his incarnation and his Passion. The “going out” of Christ from the Father, for love of our love, is mirrored in this master’s repeated journeys out, in the heat of the day, to ensure that all can find the work they need (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).
The parable applied to a range of characters in Jesus’s day, from the religious leaders scandalised by his inclusion of sinners and Gentiles to his own disciples (whom we find, immediately after this passage, jockeying for status). In every context, God’s mercy disrupts our conceptions of justice, and the hierarchies of desert and honour that we establish.
St Mechtilde of Hackeborn writes of the Church as the “vineyard”, and of Christ “labouring and watering” this vineyard with his sweat. As his disciples, we are invited to labour and water in that same vineyard with his self-emptying love rather than compare ourselves with other labourers and envy their reward.
Paradoxically, we enter the Kingdom only when we stop comparing our reward with that of others, and participate instead in the sacrificial love Christ has for each member of his Body. In doing so, we experience the joy and delight he has for each of us, especially the “last”.
Such sacrificial love is displayed by Paul in our epistle. As St Thomas Aquinas says, he displays a “perfect charity” in preferring “continuing in the flesh” with the Philippians to the delight of being with the Lord. And Paul commends his readers for “having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have”. Both apostle and congregation are united with their Lord’s “labouring and watering” in the vineyard.
It is easy to speak glibly of “love” and “forgiveness”, but their practice can be costly and disturbing. As David Benjamin Blower explains, the story of Jonah casts light on the cost of forgiveness (Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on humiliation, terror and the politics of enemy-love).
To understand Jonah’s reluctance to preach in Nineveh — and his anger at God’s mercy — we must attend to the nature of its wickedness. It was the capital of the Assyrian empire, which, at the time of Jonah’s composition, was unparalleled in its “fetish for violence”, and committed to the destruction of “peoplehood” as well as of individuals.
Assyria’s strategy for expansion was to deport the surviving peoples of conquered lands and “scatter them across the empire until the various languages, religions, stories, and cultures of vanquished peoples were gradually dissipated and lost in the imperial mush; until the world was Assyria”.
Jonah’s reluctance (and his consequent anger when Assyria repents and God relents) is therefore rooted in something deeper than mere chauvinism. He is scandalised by God’s mercy on an empire that has sought to annihilate Jonah’s own people, as well as others. The story of Jonah is one of the most striking refutations of the contrast between a “God of wrath” in the Old Testament and a “God of mercy” in the New. Mercy and judgement — the need to repent, and the astonishing offer of forgiveness from God — are woven together in both Testaments.
The cross of Christ “reveals what is implicit” in Jonah’s story. Only non-violent love can vanquish the powers of sin and death. Our elections highlight two of the features of Christlike love. It is willing to “labour” sacrificially with the Lord in his vineyard, and to welcome all who turn to him, however late in the day, and whatever their previous offences. At the same time, the lections assure us — as children precious in God’s sight — of mercy when we, too, fall short.
Canon Angus Ritchie is Director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and an NSM of St George-in-the-East with St Paul, London.