A theological education does not replace Scripture. It just gives you tools to read Scripture better: it warns you of possible pitfalls, and sometimes suggests important themes you might not have noted.
This all comes in handy with this Sunday’s readings. My Thomistic education taught me to beware of any over-emphasis on the will. It also helped me appreciate the real meaning of “the common good.”
Our Gospel this Sunday is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” “Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money.”
So the landowner is “free” to do what he wants with his money. (Actually, the Greek is just “his own stuff”; this isn’t specifically about money.) We could take the lesson to be that God arbitrarily spreads his wealth. We could gloss this over with mercy, and say that God freely welcomes others, but we could still end up focusing on God’s radical freedom.
But we should go a step deeper, and see that the freedom in question is God’s freedom to be generous. The landowner has enough that he doesn’t need to be stingy: he can pay people a full day’s wage even if they haven’t earned it, because he has the wealth.
That is the heart of God’s mercy: his super-abundance. He can afford to be generous.
The other two readings give us two applications of this lesson.
Isaiah says, “Let the scoundrel forsake his way . . . let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.”
At the heart of that mercy is God’s generosity, and his superabundance. God does not need to keep accounts with us. He does not need to get us back for our sins, because we can never hurt him. He is self-sufficient. He has enough.
That doesn’t mean everyone goes to heaven. We do not have enough! We need the wealth that he shares with us. We need his mercy, which does not only spare punishment, but shares his riches, and transforms us. We need to receive from him – and so the scoundrel must forsake his way. But when he does, the Lord always has enough grace to save him.
That’s why “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” We live in the realm of scarcity, where if I give you half my apple, there’s that much less apple for me. That’s not how it is with God. He gives us himself, and remains infinitely rich.
But where Isaiah talks about the sinner turning to God, our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians talks about how the righteous turns to God. “To me life is Christ, and death is gain.” “I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.”
Paul is not afraid of suffering. He is not afraid of death, because if he loses everything – and death is the loss of absolutely everything – but has Christ, he has lost nothing. Because Christ is infinite riches, infinite happiness. Paul has nothing to fear from death.
But neither has he anything to fear from life. He can give himself entirely to others. His willingness to die puts a nice spin on this: life is not something he clings to for his own sake, but something he gladly pours out for others.
Paul can afford to be generous, because Christ is generous with him. If God is our sufficiency, we never need to be stingy. If my kids are needy (as they often are!) and I am left to myself, I need me time, I need to focus on my own happiness sometimes, I need to take care of myself – if I have not Christ. But if I have Christ, if I possess infinite riches, if I know the happiness that is God alone, then I don’t need to be stingy, any more than God needs to be stingy.
This comes out also in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. “When the first came, they thought that they would receive more” – they wanted to hoard! But the Master gives us our daily wage, and our daily bread. That’s all we need – if we know that he will be there for us tomorrow, and the day after, and forever, to be our sufficiency.
Are there places in your life where you don’t think God is sufficient to care for you?