Most of you who have had a working life have encountered a difficult boss. Someone who has made your life harder, someone who comes up with impossible things for you to do, someone who makes irrational decisions, someone who is relentless in pursuing you for the things you have not done rather than things you have done. Not many of you have met a boss like the man in the parable, someone who over-pays rather than underpays, someone who favours a latecomers as much as he favours the good timekeeper. Depending on your point of view, and where you come in the story, the boss is either a monster or a hero. He is good news for the ones who have come last but not such good news for the ones who have worked all the day long. Tools, we can imagine, would be down. Labour would be withdrawn. The strike would be called.
What the parable is suggesting to most of us is unworkable, unthinkable and unfair. That anyone who comes at the last hour should be paid as much as the one who simply turns up and does the least amount of work.
This parable in actual fact, although piggy backs on the image obviously has a deeper meaning which echoes other parables that Jesus recounts. The prodigal son. The lost sheep. The lost coin. The unforgiving servant. Each of these parables poses the same question: what is more important mercy or justice. Why should the father take back the son who has behaved badly? Why should he treat him as a son? Why should a shepherd put at risk 99 sheep to save one single sheep that has wandered away and put itself in danger? Why look for a worthless coin that is lost? Why forgive a servant a massive debt whom will not even cancel the small debt of a similar servant?
In justice the young who has squandered everything could be expected to be cut off. In justice the lost sheep who has wandered off could expect to be forgotten. In justice the lost coin is worthless compared to all the work to find it. The servant doesn’t deserve justice because he will nto show mercy.
Instead each of these parables is about mercy. Mercy of a father to a child. Mercy of a shpherd to a sheep. Mercy of a householder who values the small coin as much as they do the larger ones. Mercy of a servant who is faced with an impossible devbt.
And of course mercy shown by the landowner to his workers. He is not so much concerned at the hours and time that they have put in but about their needs. He knows that the one arrives late has to feed their family, clothe them, put a roof over their head as the one who comes and works all the day long. In justice the man who comes last could have expected to receive less, but in actual fact receives the same, receives mercy rather than justice.
There is something really important in all of this. People expect God to be a God of justice. To punish wrongdoers. To make sure people get their just deserts. To send lighting bolts down, to send them bad luck, to make sure that they don’t get away with things. But these parables speak about something different about a God mercy, of infinite mercy, a God of patience, who waits and is tireless in his patience and mercy.
Like the men in the Gospel we grumble at this and say it can’t work. There has to be justice in the world or terrible things will occur. If people think they can get away with striking you they will take liberties, if people think they can steal from you they will steal from you, if the strong think they can take advantage of you, they will do it. There has to be justice, otherwise the world will fall apart. There has to be law in the law which bring justice and order and there has to be an ultimate divine law and divine justice.
These parables and this parable doesn’t say that there shouldn’t be justice but what they do say is that there has to be mercy. Mercy which forgives, mercy which pardons, mercy which forgives the errant son, mercy in which the one matters as much as the 99, mercy in which the smallest thing is just as important as the biggest thing, mercy which gives others the chance to show mercy, mercy which sees the need in the one who comes at the last hour as much as the one who toils all the day long.
Mercy seems weak but mercy is strong. It takes a big person to show mercy. To forgive rather than hold a grudge. To be generous rather than mean. To love rather than hate. To give rather than take away.
The man in the Gospel parable isn’t just but he is merciful. With his own money he chooses to pay everyone the same amount, knowing that their needs are the same.
In God is the greatest of mercy. St Paul will; say that he even forgives while people are in their sin, haven’t changed. He gives his son into the hands of those who hated him and with his dying breathe forgive them and with the sacrifice of his life on the cross forgive the sins of everyone. It is about mercy, the divine mercy.
The words of the reading are all about mercy. How could someone who comes at the last hour expect to be paid the same as the one who has toiled all the day long. They could only expect it, if the one who hands it to him is merciful