[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 2 October 2008]
"These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat."
"My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 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? Are you envious because I am generous?"
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last. Mt 20:12-16
St. Augustine once counseled Christians to "beware of mathematicians...The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit."
Though I'm sure that there are times that my husband Victor's calculus students agree, in truth, Augustine's mathematici were not mathematicians in the modern sense, but astrologers and soothsayers, and Augustine himself used mathematics to illumine the mysteries of God's grace.
Reflecting on John's account of the miracle of the groaning nets in his Tractates on the Gospel of John, Augustine suggested that 153 fish appeared in the net because it was the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 17 and as all the individual numbers share in the total, so do we all share in God's grace. Augustine weaves the elegant mathematics of constructing 153 from various base numbers into a convincing illustration of the many ways God is at work in the world.
I listened this week to another accounting of God's abundant grace and to two impassioned homilies that gave me hope that even those of us who have not toiled as we should might yet receive the fullness of mercy.
When one homilist emphasized the symmetry of the first becoming last, and the last first, I envisioned the equations for a circle, where indeed the first point and the last point are not only interchangeable, but one and the same. God's ways are not our ways, but the equations led me to muse that perhaps God had left us a clue to His ways in the mathematics of this Gospel text. Like Augustine and the fish, mathematics opened another door into the Scripture.
Given that both parents and all four of their grandparents are scientists, it probably would''t surprise you that my kids enjoy odd math puzzles. One favorite is what number can you double and it will remain the same? One answer - infinity. Twice infinity is infinity. Divide it in half, still infinite. Add one to infinity and it remains unchanged; it's infinite. No arithmetic operation can change its unbounded nature.
Each group of workers that came forward put in more hours than the group that preceded them, yet the wage calculated for them was the same. If you apply my kids' mathematical logic, the base salary must therefore be infinite. Work twice as much, and your pay will still be infinite.
The 'usual wage' we are being offered is God's infinite love. I am struck not only by God's mercy to those who come up short, but his starting stance of limitless grace.
I read this gospel as a proof of God's infinite, unbounded, and unalterable love for us - for those of us who work through the heat of the day, for those of us who seek God in the cool of the evening, for those of us who are hoping God will find us before the end of the day. Nothing we can do can add to it, or thank God, lessen it.
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in Your unbounded mercy You have revealed the beauty of Your power through Your constant forgiveness of our sins. May the power of this love be in our hearts to bring Your pardon and Your kingdom to all we meet. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(From the opening prayer for Mass on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time)