Justice & Mercy

The parable of the landowner at Mass last weekend put the figurative bow on my week. The message of human envy in opposition to the great mercy of God brought together in one package some of the themes I encountered on campus and off.

While the message is meant to highlight the generosity and mercy of God, it does so in an uncomfortable way.  The landowner hires day laborers and agrees to pay them a just wage for a day’s work.  He returns throughout the day to hire more laborers, even taking on more workers close to the end of the day.  When the time comes to pay them their wages, all of the laborers receive the same payment for a full day’s work.  The laborers who worked the entire day and got paid the same as someone who only worked an hour or two were angry.  

“And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
'These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day's burden and the heat.'
He said to one of them in reply,
'My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?'
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last." 

If anyone has ever had any contact with children, they have certainly heard the refrain, “That’s not fair!” Ever the mini justice warriors, young children tend to see the world in black and white, and are keenly aware of any type of injustice.  Even as children age, and begin to process the world with logic and reason, they still operate from a very personal, narrow perspective.  They lack the broader perspective that age brings, through no fault of their own.

However, the parable of the landowner strikes the chord of injustice not only in children’s hearts, but in adults’ as well.  At first glance, we do not see that the landowner has treated the laborers who worked all day in a just way.  He paid them a fair wage which they had agreed upon beforehand. He did not cheat them!  He acted with generosity and mercy toward the laborers hired later in the day, but that does not detract from the just and fair way he treated the other workers.  Why then are they disgruntled?

They are envious, and envy stems from comparison. The theological definition of envy is resentment or sadness at another’s good fortune or excellence, with an often insatiable desire to have it for oneself.   Envy is the result of us sitting in judgment of God’s actions. 

In an article in The Catholic Thing, Fr. Paul Scalia wrote,  “Comparison is the thief of joy. The problem of the day laborers — of the Pharisees and of us — is to see the world in terms of comparison. It’s not only the mistake of thinking that, if God gives more to others, he necessarily gives less to us. It’s also, and more deeply, the grave error of finding our worth and joy in how we compare to others.

That’s a debilitating and exhausting habit, requiring the constant monitoring of others lest we lose our value by someone else’s blessedness. Entering that comparison game is getting on the treadmill of looking, watching, eyeing others — instead of looking to the Lord.”

The dangers of comparison were the subject of a discussion I had with a group of students this week.  When our worth is dependent upon whether we got a better test grade, scored more points, have a more expensive phone/sneakers/whatever, we have lost sight of where our worth and dignity originates.  We are precious and unrepeatable because we are made in the image and likeness of God, not because of anything we do or have.  If someone is smarter or more beautiful than us, does this mean we are not smart or beautiful? Of course not!  The habit of comparison steals not only our joy, but in this age of social media, it can steal our sense of worth, self-esteem, and even our mental health.  

In his homily this weekend, my pastor reminded us that there are things we do not know or do not see.  As a child’s perspective is limited, so is ours, as adults!  We lack God’s all-knowing vantage point, and therefore, are in no position to judge his actions.  Perhaps the landowner knew something about one of the workers that triggered his generous act.  A particular hardship, perhaps, that would be eased by the extra money.  We are not God, and we can’t understand the reasons he grants mercy or gifts to one and not another.  

As God spoke through Isaiah in the first reading, 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts."

The lesson for us is to resist comparison and cultivate gratitude for all the ways God has been generous and merciful to us.  True peace will follow when we acknowledge and nourish the gifts God has given us, and when we can be happy for the blessings and good fortune God has granted to our friends.

I will leave you with Fr. Scalia’s words:

“Are you envious because I am generous? Our answer should be a spirited, No! I rejoice in your generosity. . .even when I don’t understand or even agree with it. The demons begrudge God his generosity and thus deprive themselves of it more and more. May we be like the angels, rejoicing in God’s generosity and thus becoming greater participants in it — and recipients of it!”

- Mrs. Lisa Sweet, Academic Dean