Both readings today speak of justice: our conception of justice and God’s conception of justice. The shepherds in the first reading were acting as many of us. It is hard to criticize them. Sheep are domesticated animals that exist for the benefit of the shepherds. The shepherds took wool, milk, and meat from the sheep – even, as the reading states taking the juicy young lambs for feasts. Any shepherd would argue that those practices are normal! That is the way the world is ordered.
The prophet presents a different viewpoint, one that comes from God. First, the sheep belong to God – they are not the shepherds’ property. Secondly, the shepherds were harsh and brutal causing the sheep to run and become scattered. Separated from their flock, they become subject to pillage. They become confused. They become lost. Sheep need a flock to live properly and be safe. The shepherds did not consider the needs of the sheep. They did not look after the lost nor tend to the sick.
Our concept of justice is centered on ourselves. God’s concept of justice is centered on everyone else and how we care for everyone and everything else.
The parable of the laborers in the today’s Gospel is very similar. Based on the normal way of giving out wages, the laborers who stated early in the day believe they are entitled to more than those who only worked one or two hours. They prefer to judge and condemn others, to sperate themselves from the late comers, and to be envious of the newcomers. This is a story about jealously in the early Christian community directed against “newcomers” or “late-comers” who the early converts deemed to be unworthy of God’s love using our mercantile way of thinking about God’s justice, love and forgiveness. We all know that the “wage”, “pay”, or “compensation package” that Jesus mentions is baptism, incorporation into his resurrection, the love and forgiveness of God, and the joy of new life.
The early Christians were using that “normal” concept of justice to continue their harshness and brutality that was condemned by the prophet in the first reading. The Christian community has the mission to reach-out to the lost, abandoned, confused, scattered, and sick – in one word care for others.
A person’s conversion is a time of great joy of the Christian community – regardless of the fact that the conversion comes in early childhood, young adulthood or late in life.
As we get older, it seems we tend to become more judgmental. As Christians, we do not punch a timecard or track our benefits based on seniority and accumulated benefits. Our life is centered on caring for others, showing them compassion, and bringing others to share the joy of our relationship with God.
Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.