When you get a chance and if you are interested I invite you to google “tree climbing goats of Morocco”. I once stumbled across this and was really kind of mesmerized. At first you might think that the pictures of these goats perched on extremely small branches of trees are doctored, I know I did, but they are not. If you go to YouTube you will see videos of these goats climbing up into the trees, moving around and balancing on the branches and then scampering down. The story is that there is a berry that these trees produce that the goats crave and over time they have adapted and developed the ability to climb the trees in order to get at the berries. That being understood, the image of all these goats standing on branches in a tree is surreal – two very ordinary things (goats and trees) brought together in a totally unexpected way. It makes you do a double-take when you see it and even question your perception.
The parables of our Lord operate in a similar way I believe. Our Lord takes common, everyday realities that we are all familiar with (maybe even take for granted) and then puts a spin on them that leaves the listener doing a mental double-take and re-evaluating ones perception of things. Similar to seeing goats perched in a tree. Take for example this Sunday’s parable (Mt. 20:1-16). We can easily imagine the landowner and the laborers. We understand what work is and what it means to give someone a fair wage for a fair day’s work. But then there is this “spin” at the end. Those laborers who worked only one hour get paid the same amount as those who put in a full day’s work. And we are left with the response of the landowner, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
What is helpful to realize is that this parable is not about us. It is about God. God’s justice is his mercy. In Isaiah we hear God proclaim, “…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways … As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” (Is. 55:6-9).
In this parable our Lord is not giving us a lesson on social justice nor is he presenting us with an image of the just boss. Rather, he presents us with an absolutely exceptional person, who treats those under him beyond the bounds of any legalistic rules. The parable shows us how the Father acts – his kindness, his magnanimousness, and his mercy, which are as far from the human way of thinking as heaven is from earth.
It is very easy to be cynical about all this, to roll one’s eyes at the Christian talk of mercy. The cynic easily says, “Let’s get real; enough of this fairy-tale talk!” Cynicism is indeed one of the besetting sins of our age which often dismissively equates mercy with naivety but cynicism is often really just a cover for fear. The Christian mystery is not a puzzle to be solved and then set aside, allowing a sense of accomplishment and superiority for the cynic, rationalist and materialist. The Christian mystery is a mystery to be lived and as we live it we are then brought to greater understanding and greater hope and joy. And it takes courage and trust to live the mystery.
So Isaiah doesn’t say “Figure it out!” rather he says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.” Then he gets really personal, “…scoundrel, wicked … you forsake your way, your thoughts … turn to the Lord for mercy…” God owes us nothing except by his choice which is his mercy. Rather than trying to fit God into our sense of fairness it would be better for us to wonder on God’s mercy.
The parable is about God and how his justice is his mercy and it teaches us that when we labor for him, as we are each called to do in our own way and according to our current season in life, then we will know the great reward of his mercy. It is a great reward. God is unjust with no one and neither is he senseless. God does not give according to some abstract notion of equity, rather he gives to each of his children according to his or her need. God’s justice is his mercy.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found…” Encounter God and his mercy. Live the mystery and know the life and the generous mercy that overcomes all the cynicism and sad logic of our world.
“…am I not free to do as I wish … Are you envious because I am generous?”