I have to be honest: I think this selection from Isaiah is one of the most disagreeable readings in either Testament. Who wants to be reminded that God does not share our opinions? In some way, this teaching seems to trump even the command to love our enemies because "God's ways" question enmity itself.
Isaiah makes no bones about it: God's ways are not ours, God's thoughts are not ours, and the distance separating our ways from God's is greater than we can imagine, perhaps like the expanding universe, continually capable of growing greater.
Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
That proclamation had to discomfit even the prophet himself. In fact, it might be worse for prophets, preachers and teachers than for anyone else. (Of course, that list necessarily includes bishops and theologians and parents. By now, it encompasses most everyone who thinks they have something to say!)
Obviously, the Isaiah reading was chosen to complement Jesus' teaching about the generous landowner, a parable that does not fit well with what many would call "the American way." In fact, this parable could sound uncannily close to the dictum "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need," a concept found in Luke's description of the early Christian community (Acts 2:44-45).
When we consider Isaiah's message seriously, we run into what seems to be an almost inescapable dimension of our human condition: our limited ability to judge rightly. One of my friends used to declare, "Of course I think my opinion is right. If I didn't think it was right, it wouldn't be my opinion!"
Isaiah would respond that's perfectly all right, as long as you never forget that your opinions are hopelessly short-sighted and highly likely to be egocentric. If you ask me, that takes all the fun out of it.
Isaiah's teaching here is pretty philosophical. Lest we get ourselves off the hook with that thought, the Gospel brings in the practical perspective. At least in terms of economics and getting just recompense, we have a good deal in common with first-century agricultural people. There is nobody who doesn't understand the irritation of the workers who spent all day toiling in the hot sun. From the age of 4 we've known how to yell, "It's not fair!"
Actually, that may be the real point of these readings. It is often unfair. It's not fair that some got a job early on while others spent most of the day wondering how they were going to be able to provide food for their children. It's not fair that many who have ambition and capacity never get to develop their talents and put them at the service of others. It's not fair that some of us are born into circumstances that provide undeserved opportunity and support while others can never dream of those prospects.
Maybe "fair" is not the key to the story. Let's remember that Jesus couched this as a parable about the kingdom of heaven. This is not the way of the world. The ways of the kingdom are as high above our preferred modes of operating as the heavens are above the earth. Now, if we accept that, we might be able to hear Isaiah say that we are scoundrels, and, in so doing, become ready to change our ways.
Once we get to this point, we can get some help from Paul's teaching in this Sunday's selection from the Letter to the Philippians. As Paul talks about the relative benefits of living and dying, he's subtly introducing us to his mysticism, his experience-based conviction that he is truly a part of Christ. That means he has begun to experience God's own ways, and it means the same is not only possible but essential for everyone who seeks to live the vocation of Christianity.
The Christian vocation begins with the grace of being invited to learn God's ways, a grace as undeserved as it is unanticipated. In that, we're with the workers last called and overwhelmingly rewarded. Our vocation also asks for the unstinting commitment demanded of the first hired.
All together, these readings are not only a call to humility, but an introduction to God's way of seeing. Isaiah tells us that God's way will challenge ours — always. Paul then teaches that we can learn God's ways; we can live in Christ. The practical parable invites us to admit that our automatic responses are often egocentric but need not be final. As a rule of thumb, we might sum it all up by saying that when we yell, "It's not fair!" our next refrain should be "Who am I to judge?"
[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]