Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The prophet Isaiah tells us today to “[s]eek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.” He goes on to remind us that our way of thinking and viewing the world is not always the same as the way God sees us: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.” This reality is not always easy for us to digest; we often try to fit God into our conceptual boxes, forgetting the infinite difference between the Lord and our limited human outlook. This especially applies to our understanding of mercy. The justice and mercy of God seem strange to us sometimes, because our ability to truly live mercy, our understanding of justice, is so conditioned by our finitude. This makes the Gospel today especially helpful.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus describes a landowner who hires laborers for his vineyard. Some begin at the normal start of the harvesting day, while others begin their work as the day wears on. In the end, the landowner pays all the workers the same amount, whether they only worked the last hour of the day or if they had toiled every hour. Just so is God with his mercy. Whether someone has labored long years following the Gospel or at the last hour says yes to the invitation to discipleship, the Lord pays out the same reward. Eternal salvation is offered to the saint and the sinner alike, provided the saint or sinner agrees to go work in the vineyard. Like the laborers who spent the day in the heat, we might feel a bit that God’s method of dispensing his mercy is unfair. But Isaiah reminds us that God’s ways and thoughts are above and beyond ours.
At the risk of pointing to the concept of “mystery” too quickly, allow me to point to the concept of mystery. In the Catholic usage of the word, we are referring to truths that surpass the powers of natural reason. This does not make them incomprehensible. Rather, “mystery” here indicates the limitations of our ability to know. The mystery of God’s mercy lies in this truth – God forgives in a way that goes beyond anything we can fathom and with a generosity that lies beyond the human capacity for generosity. Though God’s mercy is far beyond our understanding, we can still experience it, imitate it, and contemplate that which lies beyond our capacity. The prophet Isaiah once again gives us the indication for what is needed in contemplating this mystery of the landowner who is so generous with his benefits: “let him turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.” The more we experience the mercy of God, the more we come to understand his generosity. The more we enter into this mystery, the more we are able to give generously, forgive abundantly, and be instruments of compassionate mercy more readily.