"Thus the last will be first, and the first will be last" (Matt 20:16).
Pope Francis, in his 2013 exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel", emphasizes that the core of the Good News is that God is always merciful. It is the very nature of God to be merciful, to never cease offering unconditional love to us. We might grow tired of asking for mercy, the pope writes, but God never tires of being merciful.
There are a number of stories in the gospels that end with the words, "The first shall be last, the last first." This paradoxical saying challenges our notions of order and worthiness in order to bring home the freedom of God to be merciful to all, sinners and saints alike. Today's Gospel passage is clearly one of the most provocative stories about God's unconditional love. A vineyard owner hires workers throughout the day, right up until the final hour, then directs his foreman to give everyone a full day's wage. Those who worked the whole day complain that they should be given more than the latecomers for bearing the burden and heat of the day. But the owner reminds them that they are receiving their full pay, while he is free to be generous. The story invariably stirs its hearers, both then and down through the generations, to cry, "Unfair!"
Jesus had his audience, made up of righteous people, right where he wanted them, caught in the revelation of their own limited understanding for mercy compared with God's limitless mercy for all, whether they are deserving or not. It is God's nature to be generous to a fault; God cannot be otherwise. Salvation is a pure gift, not something anyone can earn. Everyone who comes to the vineyard, early or late, will receive salvation, a full day's pay. We are left in the tension of this outcome to ponder the startling -- even disturbing -- image of God, which turns upside down our notions of fairness, of who is first and who is last.
What a challenge this presents to us: To enter God's reign we must surrender our standards of mercy and justice and entrust ourselves to Absolute Love. Even more challenging, we enter today asked to model this same unconditional attitude to everyone around us. The Good News is also directed to us, in as much need of mercy as anyone. God will always love us, no matter what how late we are or how poorly we perform. The invitation to enter the vineyard of the Lord is never withdrawn. This is the joy of the Gospel.