September 18, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

Let’s be grateful God gives generously to all

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat,” one of them said. … The landowner replied, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:12,15)

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is a familiar, but perplexing, parable (Mt 20:1-16a). A landowner hires day laborers at different hours from early morning until late afternoon. At the end of the day, each worker is paid the same wage regardless of how many hours worked.

Most of us are inclined to sympathize with those who worked the most hours. They complain the landowner is being unfair. Why should those who only worked a couple of hours receive the same pay as those who labored all day long?

The first principle of Catholic social teaching is respect for the dignity of every human person—regardless of race, sex, nationality, economic or social status, educational background, political affiliation or sexual orientation—because all are created in the image and likeness of God. This Sunday’s Gospel reading affirms this principle. Our human dignity, and our equality, are not earned, inherited or bestowed on us by our race or social standing. We are all equal and deserving of respect because we are all members of God’s family. No matter how different we may appear to be from one another, we are all one in Christ.

The parable of the generous landowner exposes our prejudice against those who are different from us or who seem to receive preferential treatment. It reveals the ways that envy, or jealousy, can distort our thinking and our emotions. To say that we are all equal does not mean that we are all the same. In fact, as St. Paul reminds us, we have each received different gifts but the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:4).

Some are more intelligent, athletic, artistic, compassionate or skilled at various activities than others. Some seem to have the Midas touch when it comes to accumulating wealth while others work hard but struggle to make ends meet. Some have kind and generous dispositions whereas others tend to be sour or bad-tempered.

Most of us are inclined to be envious when we see someone who has talents or possessions we don’t have. We may even be tempted to accuse God of being unfair. Why should my neighbor have everything handed to him or her on a silver platter, while I struggle to make a living? Why should one group of people (strangers) receive the benefits earned by the hard work and sacrifices of our own people?

God’s response is the same as the landowner’s: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15) We forget that everything we have—all our spiritual and material possessions—comes to us as a gift from God. Our only appropriate response to God’s generosity (toward us and toward others) is gratitude.

As Pope Francis reminds us, we can plant seeds, cultivate the ground and weed our gardens, but only God can do the growing. All life is a gift from God that we didn’t earn and don’t deserve. We shouldn’t complain because God is generous. We should be profoundly grateful.

Does this mean we should accept the unequal treatment of our sisters and brothers? Absolutely not. Precisely because we are all one in Christ, we are required to advocate for fairness and justice for all people regardless of who they are, where they come from or what they look like. This is another fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching.

In our March 2015 pastoral letter, “Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana,” the Indiana bishops wrote: “Work is more than simply a way to make a living; it is a continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected. These include the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize, to private property, and to economic initiative.”

If the landowner had refused to pay those who only worked one hour, or if he had deducted their wages from what the others received, or if he reneged on the agreed upon daily wage, he would have committed an injustice, and we would be right to protest his unfairness. But the landowner in this parable is being generous not unjust. Everyone received the agreed upon just wage.

Let’s remember that dissatisfaction with what we have, or with who we are, is what leads to covetousness (the sin of inordinate desire) concerning our neighbors’ material or spiritual blessings.

Let’s thank God for all his generosity toward us even as we work to ensure just and equal treatment for all. †

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