Mercy always seems like a ridiculous gift. That is, it seems ridiculous to the person who is watching someone else receive it. Unless you’re the one receiving the mercy, it’s a waste, nonsensical, a display of the giver’s ignorance, and any number of other bitter replies. We’re glad to be merciful for a little bit, but it has its limits. This is what lies at the center of the Readings for today, and what characterizes these three weeks preceding Lent. We can never understand the depths of God’s mercy because our eye is evil, that is, sin has clouded our judgment and on this side of eternity we can never fully comprehend our merciful God.
In the forty years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness, Moses was told twice to provide water for the grumbling children of Israel. The first time, which we heard in today’s Old Testament Reading, Moses was told to strike the rock. He did, the water flowed, and the people drank. As St. Paul explained, they drank of Christ, and He followed them. Later they needed water again and grumbled. The second time, recorded in the book of Numbers, God told Moses to speak to the rock and water would flow, but in anger he struck the rock twice. Water flowed, but Moses was punished. He was not allowed to enter the Promised Land and died in the wilderness with all the people who had lived in Egypt.
If it wasn’t clear enough in the Old Testament, St. Paul spells it out explicitly in 1 Corinthians, today’s Epistle Reading. The rock that gave water was Christ. He is the One who provides water in the wilderness, just like He is the One who provided mana and quail, who parted the waters of the Red Sea, who rescued His people from Egyptian slavery, who defeated Pharaoh and all his army. Remember what the Lord has said: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (Jn. 7:37) and “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (Jn. 4:14).
The sin Moses committed the second time he struck the rock is that he was angry that God was merciful. This sin, this anger at the frivolous dispensing of mercy, merited God’s wrath. So the Lord said to Moses, “Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Nu. 20:12). Yes, Moses believed that God had the power to provide water. Yes, he believed the Lord was real, that He was God, but in his arrogance Moses thought God was a fool because of His mercy. And a quick glance through Scripture shows that Moses isn’t the only one. It’s the reason Jonah refused to go to Nineveh, the reason the Pharisees rejected Jesus, and the sin of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
It’s also the sin of the laborers who worked all day in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers, today’s Gospel. The landowner asks them “Is your eye evil because I am good?” This question may be confusing, which is why many other English translations interpret it rather than translating it. They say “Do you begrudge my generosity.” That’s a good place to start, but there’s more to it than that. It means that their resentment of his generosity made them unable to see anything clearly. Their eyes were evil. They had become covetous, envious, and sad because of another’s happiness, so they could not see any good. The overpaying of those who did just one hour’s work did not take away anything from their payment for a full day’s work, but they could not be happy. They could only be angry and sad.
But that’s not just the response in a parable. Each of us know that reaction. Jealousy at another’s good, elation at other’s demise. Repent. God wants to be merciful and generous. He loves the people who grumble and complain against Him in the wilderness. He loves the people who don’t deserve it, who are too lazy to work and show up late. And in our fallen flesh we think that is wrong. We like some generosity, some mercy, but not too much, and then only if we’re the recipients.
But what’s backwards to the world, to our fallen reason, is the essence of Christianity: God forgives sinners and punishes His Son in their stead. It is not fair. It is not just. God makes us sinners equal to His Son. The rock was struck the first time because the Christ is stricken, smitten, and afflicted in our place, on our behalf so that Baptismal water and Eucharistic Blood could flow from His side, the water and drink that satisfy us so we never thirst again. The rock was not to be struck the second time because the sacrifice of Jesus was once for all. Moses, in his sin of wanting the people to pay for their own sins, struck the rock because he was denying the fullness and generosity of the Lord’s mercy for His people and, in a way, sought to re-crucify the Lord.
The world may be first come—first served, you get what you pay for. But the Kingdom of Heaven is not like our kingdom. You don’t pay. The goods are given for free. The hiring practices of the owner of the vineyard would run any business into the ground, but the Lord doesn’t care. He isn’t out to make a living. He is out to give away His Kingdom. So the Lord does all things in reverse: the last are first. In His Kingdom grace and mercy reign, sins are forgiven, rebels become sons and daughters of the King. If the Lord should mark iniquities, who could stand? But with Him there is forgiveness, mercy, and abundant redemption. Give thanks unto the Lord, for His mercy endureth forever.