By Father Robert M. Powers
It was one of the most powerful proclamations of the Gospel I have ever experienced – and it astounds me that The New York Times proclaimed it to me.
One day, about five years ago, The Times ran four photos of a street corner somewhere in the outer boroughs where cars pull up to choose jornaleras – Hispanic women seeking work as cleaners and domestics. In the first photo, the corner was filled with about 30 women, varying in age from 18 to 50. They were pretty women and homely women, slim women and overweight women.
In the second photo, the numbers of jornaleras diminished, and then in the third photo, they diminished again. Cars drove off first with the more attractive and younger women, leaving the older, heavier and less pretty women to wait for work.
Finally, in the last photograph, only about seven women remained. They were obviously proud: standing up straight with faint smiles or blank faces that displayed no emotion at all. But they were the oldest and the least attractive. They were on the furthest margins of this marginalized class of day laborers – human commodities of little value. Of the four images of the jornaleras assembled on the corner that morning, the photo of this last group evoked the most pity.
Those photos haunt me whenever I read this parable. The landowner hides his compassion when speaking with the last group of day laborers at five o’clock. “Why do you stand here idle all day?” he says to this group. The words seem judgmental, but he is masking his compassionate heart.
The workers are straightforward in their response and not without sadness in their tone of voice: “Because no one has hired us.”
It is not easy to work in the hot sun as a farm worker. But it is more difficult to stand unemployed under that same sun and not produce or earn anything at all.
The parable invites us to contemplate the mystery of God’s justice as Isaiah portrays it in the first reading: a justice not of retribution but of forgiveness and, in this parable, of mercy.
Divine justice is not always comprehensible to the human mind: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
While God’s ways are not always possible to discern, sometimes they are as this parable tells us. Through this parable, Jesus gives us an aerial view of this situation in which we can see the plight of the group that was last to be hired. Their suffering calls for justice – a point missed on the day laborers who are too close to the situation and too embroiled in their emotions of envy.
The workers that were hired first and have worked all day are indignant that they are not paid more than the last. The landowner challenges them: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Many of us battle the capital sin of envy in our own lives – sadness or resentment that God does not seem to reward us in this life the way that He seems to reward others.
According to God’s Standards
Perhaps as people of faith we feel that our practice of virtue and our fidelity to the commitments to which God has called us should produce tangible benefits in this life. When the divine payback doesn’t happen according to our standards, we feel disheartened.
The cure for this envy is trust – trust in the generous Providence of God that mysteriously exists in equal measure for each and every one of us.
The colleague or neighbor who seems to have it all may have compensation for a life that also includes the cross. A closer look may reveal that cross to us. Or we may not be able to understand some difference we see in our lives in comparison with others.
The challenge, therefore, is to trust that God’s generosity is always present in each of our lives – no matter how things seem and no matter what our situations are.