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Grace vs merit

It is only when we realize how blessed we are that we start living life as a blessing

Five batches of workers were hired according to the parable in today’s Gospel.

In the time of Jesus the working hours were from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., meaning, not 8 hours like today but 12 hours! The first batch worked for 12 hours. The second batch, for 9 hours. The third, for 6 hours. The fourth, for 3 hours. And the fifth, for one hour. How much did they receive at the end of the day? The same amount: the equivalent of a full day’s wage.

Of the five batches, only the first batch complained of unfair labor practice. The four other batches were silent. How come? Because they were overwhelmed by what the generosity; it was beyond what they were expecting! They would have gladly received wages worth the number of hours that they gave, but, wow, they also got a full day’s wage!

On the other hand, the first batch was also overwhelmed; overwhelmed with envy and resentment. They were the only ones who cried UNFAIR. Why? Because they knew what the others received and were even the first to get their pay—namely, a full day’s wage. It’s not fair, they say to the employer, because they were the early birds; they bore the heat of the sun for twelve hours and they received just the same amount as the latecomers.

But how could they complain that the employer was unfair to them if they agreed to work for a full day’s wage and they got exactly what they worked for? What are they complaining about? Strictly speaking, the employer was not unfair to them. What they were grumbling about was that he was too generous to the others. And here’s their unexpressed point: shouldn’t you be just as generous with us? It was their real issue. We came early; they came late. But can one demand generosity as an entitlement?

You know, I used to agree with the reasoning of the first batch until I understood the context. Many years ago, when I was still a student doing graduate studies in Israel, I learned about this. One day, while walking near the Damascus gate of the old city of Jerusalem, I saw a group of men standing by the street corner, holding placards. I thought it was a political rally or demonstration. When I got near, I realized that they were job seekers. The placards identified their skills: masons, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, gardeners, etc. Imagine, the biblical practice is still alive up to this day and age!

It means the last four batches were not late-comers, and the first batch of workers were not early birds! They all came early. In fact some of them come as early as 5am. I am inclined to believe that the employer himself was not aware of this at the start. It was when he realized it that his attitude changed.

This photograph taken on Sept. 18, 2017 shows an Indian boy working at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Jalandhar. Brick kiln workers in India are trapped in a cycle of bonded labor and regularly cheated out of promised wages. (Photo by Shammi Mehra/AFP)
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Take note of his question to the last batch: Why are you standing here idle the whole day? Their answer was, “Because no one has hired us.” Meaning, they were not lazy bystanders. They were desperate workers who would rather wait and endure the heat of the sun if only to be able to get a job, even for a few hours. They came early but were hired late. The fact that they stayed means they did not give up, even to the last hour.

Imagine, it was already 5 p.m. and they were still there! Not only were the chances very slim that they would still be employed. How much would they be paid for just one hour of work? They knew that they would get very little for a one-hour job, but they did not mind. A little was still better than nothing.

In the Christian community Bible, which sometimes gives not just a translation but a paraphrasing of the text, the introductory verse says, “This story throws light on the kingdom of heaven.” What light does it shed on the kingdom of heaven?

Firstly, that God’s kingdom is not merit-oriented but GRACE-ORIENTED. Only this point can make you understand why the first batch were paid last. It is Jesus’s way of driving home a point. He wanted those hired first to realize how privileged they were. They were probably the more employable type—the ones who were more skilled, more qualified, more highly educated. Maybe they were also taller, more good looking, more physically capable than the others, the kind who could get employed more easily. He wanted them to see how lucky, and how blessed they were. They were the type who could also get employed regularly.

I know some wealthy parents who send their children to schools where they have exposure programs that could give their children an opportunity to immerse themselves with the poor. I asked one parent if he was not afraid that his son might be harmed or kidnapped in the slums. He said, “I want my son to realize on his own how privileged he is. I don’t want him to take the many benefits that he is receiving in life, for granted. You see, it is disappointing when our children begin to behave like they are entitled to all the things that they have, and more disappointing when they still have the gall to complain because they expect to get more. They need to see other kids who are very grateful for being able to study at all even as working students. ”

We often do not realize that the world is unfair, that society is very unequal. If there is anything in this world that balances injustice and unfairness, it is love, grace, mercy or generosity. When you still have people in your life who will generously share their resources, people who give even to those who do not deserve it, or did not work for it. It is the sense of grace that balances our sense of merit in this world.

Grace, love, mercy, generosity, they all mean basically the same thing. They are what the kingdom of heaven is about. And so, when people are gracious, loving, merciful or generous, it’s like the kingdom of heaven is already with us. Imagine what it would be like if God were to give us only what we deserve, if he were to judge us only on the basis of merit? Remember the Psalm that says, “If you Lord should mark our guilt, who can stand?”

A laborer works on a stupa inside a temple in Bangkok, Thailand, in this file image taken on Aug. 14, 2015. (Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

Only love, only a sense of grace can balance the world’s unfairness, its very uneven playing field. What did we have with us anyway when we were born? We did not have a single penny in our pocket. We didn’t even have pockets because we were born naked. If you were clothed, and fed, and educated, if you turned into a decent human being, it only means there were people who looked after you. Do you really think they did so because you deserved it? Because they were required to? You see, it does not take much to realize that life is grace. Only those who develop a sense of grace can live life gratefully.

There is a song by Karen Carpenter entitled SOMETIMES. It is about a man who, while away from home, suddenly missed his family, his parents, his wife and kids and felt overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for them. The song says,

“Sometimes, not often enough,
We reflect upon the good things,
And those thoughts always center
around those we love
And I think about those people
Who mean so much to me
And for so many years have made me so very happy
And I count the times I have forgotten to say,
Thank you, and just how much I love them!”

In Spanish, they say GRACIAS when they say THANK YOU. That is really what gratitude is about: a sense of grace.

It is only when we realize how blessed we are that we start living life as a blessing. St. Ignatius of Loyola composed a prayer that summarizes what we learn from today’s Gospel. It is called the prayer for generosity:

Dearest Lord, teach me to be generous
Teach me to serve You as I should
To give and not to count the cost
To fight and not to heed the wounds
To toil and not to seek for rest
To labor and ask not for reward
Save that of knowing that I do Your most holy will.

“Grace vs merit” is a homily delivered by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan on Sept. 20, 2020, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mat 20:1-16a

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