God’s Ways Are Not Our Ways

User’s Guide to Sunday, Sept. 20

May we not be like the older son who resented the Prodigal Son’s welcome home after his wanderings.
May we not be like the older son who resented the Prodigal Son’s welcome home after his wanderings. (photo: Pixabay)

Sunday, Sept. 20, is the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Mass readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20C-24, 27A; and Matthew 20:1-16A.

From our own limited perspectives, life often seems terribly unfair — good people often seem to fare far worse than the bad in this world. Such situations appear in many of the texts of sacred Scripture. Throughout salvation history examples abound of the unjust seeming to flourish while the just seem to suffer. Jacob uses trickery and yet inherits Esau’s birthright and blessing. Job does all that the Lord asks and yet suffers horrible losses. Jesus came preaching grace and truth, serving and healing, and he was condemned to death.

We can look at the world around us and see a similar pattern. Often those who serve themselves appear to come out on top, while those who serve others often seem to come in last place — their good deeds hidden and even at times resulting in oppression and persecution. Yet Jesus assures us that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).

Today’s Gospel addresses the seeming imbalance of life in terms of God’s generosity. The Parable of the Landowner portrays God as just to all, but willing to go beyond justice to mercy for those in need. The workers who labored all day for the kingdom were rewarded. They received their wages, and if their hearts were right toward their master and their labor, they could enjoy the reward of a job well-done. 

Those hired late in the day caused a stir. They only served for a short time and yet received the reward of those who were serving all along. On human scales of strict justice, this seems unfair. The Lord revealed through the prophet Isaiah a call to another perspective: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

Before we let ourselves be frustrated by the last-minute convert who seems to get all the grace without the struggle, we need to remember that this parable was addressed to a primarily Jewish audience. The children of the first covenant were being instructed in the superabundant generosity of God who wanted to extend Israel’s covenantal blessings to people of every tribe and nation. Any of us hearing these readings who are not of Hebrew descent are the workers hired late in the day. 

As for those who spend a lifetime striving to love and serve the Lord, if we find ourselves envious of God’s generosity with others, we might examine our own hearts. Don’t we want all to come to the Lord? Isn’t every gift we receive pure grace? 

There will always be events that we do not understand, since it remains true that God’s ways are infinitely beyond our own. If we believe what the Psalmist proclaims, that “the Lord is just in all his ways and holy in all his works” (Psalm 145:17), we can find peace amidst the inexplicable shifts in life.

God’s generosity is a cause not for grumbling resentment but for hopeful rejoicing. If we find ourselves like Cain who resented Abel’s favor with God or the older son who resented the Prodigal Son’s welcome home after his wanderings, we need to consider how good the Lord is to all. If we find ourselves complaining like the laborers — “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat” (Matthew 20:12) — we can recall that divine generosity is ours for the asking. Whether we labor long in the Lord’s vineyard or come to the Lord later, everything is grace. 

Sister Mary Madeline Todd is a Dominican Sister of the St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville.

She received her doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum in Rome and currently teaches religion and philosophy at Mount de Sales Academy in Baltimore.