In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who goes down to the local Home Depot (or was it a 7-11? my translation just says "the marketplace") early in the morning, and there finds a bunch of men loitering around hoping to pick up a day's work. He agrees on a standard day's wage, loads them into his pickup truck and takes them back to the vineyard, where they immediately start working. He goes back a few hours later and brings back another pickup-truckload of day laborers, again at lunchtime, again in the afternoon, and then again just an hour before the working day is finished. When time comes to start paying them off, the boss tells his foreman to call the workers forward, starting with the last hired. Each one is paid the standard day's wage. Seeing this, the ones who had been there first perked up, thinking that they would no doubt get paid more since they had been working hard for many more hours than the later ones. But no, every worker received the same wage, one day's pay, whether the day had been long or short. The early birds grumbled about it, but the boss said, what's your beef? Isn't that the wage you agreed on this morning? You got exactly what was promised. So what if I choose to pay these other men the same amount, even though they started later? It's not coming out of your pocket - it's my money, to do with as I please.
So ... to put this into the context of the other two readings. Paul is in prison in Rome, facing the very real possibility of execution. He writes to the Philippians, and in this excerpt from that letter he is telling them that he doesn't know whether to wish for death or a reprieve. He longs to go home to Jesus, he looks forward to it eagerly, and yet he is so very aware of how much work there is left for him to do, and how much good he could do if he stays. How many of us have ever heard someone say they wish they were dead -- not because life has become intolerable, but because the next life, life after life, holds such a bright attraction for them?
And in the first reading, Isaiah tells us to turn, turn around, let go of our evil ways, seek the Lord, "who is generous in forgiving. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts."
God's ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts. We, in our short-sighted mortal way, fear the future, fear death, and hate suffering. We, in our self-centered human way, have a keen sense of justice (it should always be in our own favor). We are not content to have enough for our own needs, we want to have as much or a little more than the next guy. And we, in our ordinary mortal way, think that suffering and death are "bad," and peace, prosperity, and pleasure are "good."
Why, why, why? We want to know --- Why do bad things happen to good people? But what does God answer? Well, I can't be so presumptuous as to place my thoughts up there with God's above your thoughts, but this is what I think. I think it's the wrong question. I think there isn't even any question. There is only an answer, and the answer is only Love. God's answer to "why do human beings suffer and die?" seems to me to be ... to become a human being, and suffer, and die, with us. God's answer to suffering is to walk right into suffering, look it in the eye, take it by the hand, and embrace it. And to embrace us, each one of us individually and all collectively, in our sorrow and in our joy, in our birthing and in our dying, in our stumbling and in our soaring.
God's answer is "I have given, am giving you enough." Not necessarily enough food or money or human affection, not necessarily enough to keep us out of suffering and struggling and dying, but enough of Himself to keep us in existence, enough of Himself and of His infinite Love to let us, finally, rise far above this "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" mortal span of life. And what can we learn from this? When confronted with another's suffering, when the vast sea of human suffering seems so to dwarf our feeble efforts to combat or redress it?
It is more important, more valuable, more right to love, and if possible to make that love known, than it is to fix any visible problem. My mother taught me, when I was just a little girl, when I would fall down and skin my knee: wash it, squirt it with Bactine, and slap a Band-aid on it ... but none of that is what stopped me crying. No, Mom would "kiss it and make it all better." That's what I remember. That's what healed my hurts when I was a child, and it's the best thing we can do to heal one another today, and it's how God makes it all better, too. Love, only love. Amen.