Dear friends. The word ‘deserve’ is an important word for how we think and how we act. We think we should get what we deserve and protest when we don’t. We say things like – ‘You worked hard for your exams so therefore you deserve to do well’; ‘They were the better team in the match and so deserved to win’; ‘He did a terrible thing and so deserved to be punished’, etc. The trouble with this way of thinking is that we project it on to God and believe that God thinks and acts like this too – ‘God is good to those who are good to him’; ‘God rewards with heaven those who have lived a good life and the wicked he punishes because they deserve it’.
The parable Jesus tells in the Gospel today turns this logic on its head. The workers in the vineyard who had worked longer expected to be paid more. They expected this because in their own minds, they deserved to be paid more. But when they came to be paid, they received what they had agreed. They were furious because their own rules had been broken. They had not received what they deserved.
The key message of the Gospel is that while God is just, he is also generous and merciful. And because he is generous and merciful, he does not obey our rules of what we deserve and what we don’t. The workers who worked only one hour in the vineyard did not deserve to be paid as much but they were. But look again at the prodigal son. He did not deserve to have the fatted calf killed for him on his return but that is what the Father did. The good thief on the cross did not deserve to have all his sins forgiven at the last moment of his life but he received mercy beyond his wildest expectation.
All this is true because God our Father is not like any other Father we know. As it says in the first reading: ‘Our God is rich in forgiving, for my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways. As the heavens are above the earth so are my ways above your ways says the Lord’.
Our God, the Father revealed by Our Lord Jesus Christ, is not a God of deserving but a God of grace. All is gift. We cannot earn what God gives us; we cannot deserve it; what God gives us is given out of the goodness of his heart. What God gives us is not pay but a gift; not reward, but a grace. We cannot be Christian if our first concern is – ‘What’s in this for me?’ or ‘If I’m good then I deserve good things’. Instead, our joy is to give everything lovingly and generously in the service of God and the service of our brothers and sisters, without looking for reward or merit. For it is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian life that the one who aims at reward loses it, and the one who forgets reward finds it.
I conclude with a question each of us might ask ourselves. Imagine at the very last moment of our lives, God offered us a choice of how to be treated after our death. One choice is that God would decide our fate according to what we have deserved by the way we have lived. The second choice is that God would decide our fate according to his generosity and mercy. I know the choice I would make, for God help us if we get what we deserve. At that last moment, all that matters will be not what we deserve but God’s generous mercy which is our final hope.