“God awards according to merits”
is the epitaph on the tomb of love
The terms Eucharist and charisma are known. They are derived from the Greek word charis which means benevolence, free gift, a gift that gives joy and makes one happy.
We feel a great satisfaction when we are given the diploma of graduation, after so much work and sleepless nights. However, a simple flower given to us by a loved one in the moment in which he declares his love awakens an immense joy.
The gift produces a unique emotion because it is a sign that someone thinks and loves us, as well as, tenderly pronounces our name.
The introduction of the criteria of retributive justice, the accountability, rewards and punishments, threats and flatteries, recording of merits and transgressions in our relationship with God is a diabolic deformation of faith. The rabbis had cataloged persons into four categories: the just, if they observe all the law; the wicked, if infractions prevail in them; the mediocres, if merits and faults are equivalent; the repentants, if they ask forgiveness of their sins. With the principle: “Reward is given only for good work,” they decreed the end of love relationship.
The dialogue between God and man is established only where there is a free encounter, free gift, unconditional reciprocal love. The one who loves claims nothing and expects nothing but to see the loved one smile and rejoice.
In the line of the prophets, the best among the rabbis said to the Lord: “Your salvation is manifested in this: you are merciful to those who have no treasure of good works.” “What you’ve done is grace, because in our hands there were no good works.” Jesus made this righteousness of God his own.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“I thank you, Lord, because you welcome and love me just as I am.”
First Reading: Isaiah 55:6-9
The Israelites are in Babylon for fifty years. Far from their land, they have suffered and cried (Ps 137). The elders still remember dramatic scene of the holy city in flames and the bloodthirsty and violent soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar invading her. With tears in their eyes they told it to their children born in exile, instilling in them the hope and the expectation of the Lord’s vengeance.
They learned in catechism that God is just: He rewards the good and punishes the wicked. For this they are certain that the Lord will punish the enemies of his people. Israel has only to wait and she will see that one day the Lord will not leave the wicked unpunished.
In this historical and cultural context, there arises a prophet who utters a disconcerting oracle: God does not think so. It is necessary to change this evil way of thinking because it is a curse to attribute to him similar projects. “The wicked—that is, the Israelite who expects reprisals of God—forsakes his way, the unrighteous man makes his thoughts wicked” (v. 7).
Even before the distancing from moral miseries, the conversion required by the prophet deals with the correction of the image of God, conceived in a very reasonable way, too much measured to man. The Lord struck all the naive projection that man makes about him. “It’s that my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are different from mine. For as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (vv. 8-9).
Man also comes out revalued by this revelation. If he leaves the vindictive idol he created himself, he progressively assimilates the thoughts and feelings of the true God. He experiences a growing and healthy revulsion for one’s own meaness and pettiness.
Second Reading: Philippians 1:20c-27a
The Letter to the Romans concluded last Sunday. For four weeks we will have as second reading a passage of the letter to the Philippians.
Paul had come to Philippi, a city of Macedonia, in 49 A.D. together with Timothy, Silas, and perhaps even Luke. The city—a major cultural and economic center—was most famous for the battle in which, on the front plain, the army of Octavian and Anthony had overcome that of Brutus and Cassius. At Philippi the apostles stayed only for a few days. They were able to initiate a community—the first in Europe. It gathered around Lydia who had converted and was baptized along with her family, after that the Lord had opened her heart to adhere to the words of Paul (Acts 16:11-15).
Among the Apostle and the community he founded there were often disagreements and friction. However, Paul’s relationship with the Philippians was idyllic, based on solid friendship and mutual genuine sympathy, to the point that only from them he accepted aids and gifts. “You alone opened for me a debit and credit account, and when I was in Thessalonica, twice you sent me what I needed” (Phil 4:16).
He wrote the letter from Ephesus at a difficult time. He was in fact in prison because of the gospel.
The communications between the two cities were fairly easy and quick. Frequent contacts and the news ran easily. From a dealer, a traveler passing through or a Christian sent specially, the Philippians came to know of about the misadventures of the Apostle. They decided to show him their friendship and concern with a concrete gesture of solidarity. They had collected gifts and instructed Epaphroditus to bring them to Paul.
It is after receiving this testimony of affection that the Apostle wrote the letter to the community of Philippi.
In it he reveals the most intimate, sweetest, most tender emotions of his heart. The passage recalling the arrival of Epaphroditus is moving: “our brother who worked and fought at my side and whom you sent to help me in my great need” (Phil 2:25) and the words with which he sends him back to Philippi with a letter: “Receive him with joy, as is fitting in the Lord. Consider highly persons like him, who almost died for the work of Christ; he risked his life to serve me on your behalf when you could not help me” (Phil 2:29-30).
For many years Paul has worked for the cause of the Gospel. He endured sufferings and overcame opposition. In Ephesus, in prison, he begins to feel fatigue and the weight of years. He more often thinks of an encounter with Jesus, to whom he dedicated his life. He wants to die to be with Christ, but also would like to continue to work for the cause of the gospel and to confirm in the faith the community he founded.
Faced with this alternative he recognizes that it would be better to die. However, the churches are still in need of him. With a generous gesture of abandonment to the will of God, he is said to be willing to postpone the meeting with the Lord to continue to serve the brethren.
The famous statement: “For to me, living is for Christ and dying is even better” (v. 21) is the synthesis of his feelings and of his deep faith. For this reason, this is written on his tomb in Rome.
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16a
There’s something unfair and irritating in the behavior of the owner referred to in the parable. He acts generously but does not take into account the merits. Nobody forbade him to do charity with his money. However, rewarding those who had appeared at the seventeenth hour and who until then, had remained dormant and, perhaps, had done nothing but loitering, is very illogical. Who deserved a recompense, if ever, were those who had struggled most, the workers of the first hour. We stipulate contracts based on certain principles and these are not observed in the parable.
It is exactly in the provocative act of the master that the main teaching of the story is dealt with. Let’s find out.
It’s harvest time. The mature grapes are collected and crushed, paying attention to the time and the right moon. For owners of large vineyards these are tense days. They need workers and laborers who do not have a steady job and who know how to take advantage of the kindness of the tenants to snatch a favorable contract. The more willing place themselves well before dawn at strategic points. They expect that someone may pass to hire them. It is at this point that our parable begins.
Even before sunrise, behold, the tenant arrives breathless. He is on his feet for more than two hours. He has scheduled the day’s work, placed the tubs, baskets and barrels. He baked the bread and prepared the olives to be distributed to the workers at midday. His face is tense and from his looks, snappy, almost nervous gestures, he shows all his concerns and haste. A few words to agree on the pay and behold the first group, the early risers, are already in the vineyard.
The eagerness of the master to conclude the work as soon as possible is really great. In fact he comes out four more times searching for workers: at mid-morning, midday, at three in the afternoon and when he calls the last group it was already the seventeenth hour, an hour before the end of the workday. So far nothing strange, everything is normal and logical.
We begin to identify the characters: the master is God or Christ; the workers are the disciples who, at different times of their lives, respond to the call; the vineyard is the Christian community, where work is not lacking and must be done with extreme urgency. The haste is the same that we find in the disposition given by Jesus to his envoys; “Do not stop at the homes of those you know” (Lk 1:4) because there is no time to lose. The day is the image of everyone’s life and the evening is the time of the righteous judgment of God
We thus come to the crux of the parable. The law states: “Do not exploit the lowly and the poor daily-wage earner, whether he be one of your brothers or a foreigner whom you find in your land and in any of your cities. Pay him daily before the sun goes down, because he is poor and he depends on his earnings. Then he will not cry to Yahweh against you, and you will have no sin” (Dt 24:14-15) and, in fact, the master ordered to put workers in line and to hand to all a silver coin… beginning from the last.
Here is the impropriety!
If he had rounded the pay of those who had worked only one hour, secretly, without attracting attention, for compassion there would be nothing to object. However, provoking the rage of those who, after twelve hours of work had sunburned faces and haggard with fatigue, it seems downright cruel. The workers of the first hour, who cannot even hold up for fatigue, are forced to witness an irritating scene. They unbelievingly observe the colleagues, with shameless and relaxed audacity of idlers, receiving an undeserved pay.
It is in this surprising and disconcerting behavior of the master that the message of the parable is perceived.
With the workers of the first hour he had agreed a silver coin, with others what will be just, with the last he had not agreed anything.
The lack of understanding comes from the lack of clarity about what the boss meant by just. The workers have understood him according to their criteria of judgment. They were convinced that he would take account the merits. The owner instead follows his own justice and distributes his goods in a completely free and open way. He did not wrong anyone; he just decided not to consider the merits. He gave everyone according to their needs and, of course, the first to be benefited were the last, the most poor (v. 16). That’s the surprise of God; that is his strange way of conceiving and practicing justice.
The parable is the clearest and provocative denouncement that can be imagined of the religion of merits taught by the spiritual guides of Israel (and supported by many even today).
The people—catechized by the priestly caste—forgot the good God, father, husband and faithful friend, preached by the prophets. They were convinced that the Lord was a legislator and a judge, so the relationship with him could only be one of the servants before the master. The rabbis taught: “He who fulfills a precept acquires for himself a lawyer, who commits a transgression acquires for himself a prosecutor. All God’s judgments are based on measure for measure.” They completed their catechesis talking about books kept in heaven, on which the meritorious deeds and transgressions were carefully noted.
According to this logic, God could not give anything for free. To get his blessing one had to earn it. To the objection: “The Bible says that Abraham, while still a pagan, was called by God. He was not just therefore his vocation was completely a free gift.” The rabbis replied, “Even if it is not explicitly stated, Abraham certainly had done good works; he had earned his vocation!”
With his parable, Jesus destroyed, forever, this self-righteous way of relating to God. The love of the Lord is never bought, conquered or assessed based on good works. It is received freely and in proportion to the need. God has filled the hungry with good things, but he sent the rich away empty (Lk 1:53).
He never gets tired of going out to meet the person, even when he misses all the appointments. God does not pay according to merits. No one can feel in credit with him (Lk 18:9-14). Before God are all children: they turn their eyes to the Father and expect from him all the best.
The religion of merits stems from the conviction that getting into the vineyard of the Lord—that is, the kingdom of God—is tantamount to bearing an immense effort, that of observing the commandments and precepts that do not always seem justified. So we ask: how is it possible that one who scrupulously practices the law of God be benefited as one who has neglected it? Why is one who was called by God only at the last hour, who is saved by the nick of time, must have part of the heavenly inheritance like the servants who remained faithful throughout their life?
Many “just ones” feel an unacknowledged envy against one who, being converted at the last moment, had the good fortune to “work less”, to enjoy life more. Here is the error: to think that joy consists in being far from God and that faithfulness to his word deserves a prize.
An example may help to grasp the ambiguity present in this way of thinking.
One starts to study music at an early age and practices for many hours a day. Another, at seventy, decides, when he lost all interest, to get his hands on a piano and does so with little enthusiasm. Which “reward” the two await? Nothing more than this: the joy of relishing the music. Their enjoyment will be different: the one who started early had more time to savor the pleasure of performing and listening to music; his joy is more intense and deeper.
Blessed are the servants who came first in the “vineyard of the Lord.” They surely have also struggled. They have enjoyed “since morning” the presence of the Lord. The workers of the first hour are those who have spent every day of their lives in the intimacy with God and in listening to His Word. The others who presented themselves late at the appointment, who did not let themselves be found when the Lord came to call them. They have lost many opportunities that were offered to them.
The one who defers the entrance into the kingdom of God does not make God angry. He does not punish for this. He complains, yes, because he wants to involve people earlier in his love and make them happy. The indecisions, perplexity, hesitations in abandoning themselves to him are also moments of lost joy. Every moment the bride spends without the groom is a moment of missed loved.
With this parable, the evangelist who was addressing Christians imbued with the self-righteous mentality also wanted to put the disciples on guard of the danger of competition within the community. No one can think of oneself being superior to others, because no one can consider oneself a veteran because he got converted first, because he practices the gospel more faithfully. No one is master of the “vineyard”; all are workers, all are brothers.
The parable is not ended. After the words of the master, how did those who murmur react? Have they accepted? Have they continued to grumble? Have they responded with insults? Have they thrown the money at the face of the winemaker? Have they vowed to never come back to work for him?