Can we expect to be given gifts? If a friend, having received a gift, turns to us and says 'I was expecting this,' will we not be a little hurt? Yet there are some kinds of gift which meet our expectations and, if not given, can cause upset.
There are cultures in which the giving of gifts is established by formal rules, often elaborate ones. In our less formal western society we may like to think that our gift-giving is more spontaneous, less constrained by social expectation, but any parent can tell you how constraining the effort of providing this year's toy at Christmas can be.
So are we to abandon gifts? Would life without gifts not be easier, so that whatever we receive from other is based purely upon what we are owed? The difficulty with this is that in many cultures, modern western culture included, gifts are not add-on extras. Perhaps it is going to far to talk about our having a right to receive gifts, but many of us certainly experience a need to have gifts on certain occasions and more importantly from certain people.
This is because a gift can create, express and maintain something essential in our relationships with each other. In giving somebody a gift we can say to them that they have an intrinsic worth beyond the meeting of their basic needs, and that we are giving them this gift not because we owe it to them but because we love them.
So our giving of gifts reflects and expresses our relationships with each other. Where our relationships are unhealthy, the manner in which we give and receive gifts will likewise be unhealthy.
If we turn now to today's Gospel, we find Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to
a householder who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.
It is important to bear in mind that this parable, like all the parables we find in the gospels, is not a literal image of the kingdom of heaven. God can be compared to a householder with a vineyard, but unlike the householder he has no need of labourers, nor even need to plant and tend a vineyard.
The vineyard here represents Israel, and God had no need to plant and tend Israel in order to extend the offer of salvation to all peoples. He had no need plant and tend any instrument at all for our salvation. So unlike the householder, God does not hire labourers because he needs their help to tend his vineyard. Rather, in love he desires all people to enter his vineyard and thus to receive the reward of eternal life.
So the hiring of the labourers in the parable is itself a gift. Moreover, once the labourers have been hired, God does not need them to work in his vineyard. Rather, he invites them to share in his work of salvation.
This again is a gift, and although the gift can often be a difficult one for us to accept, especially for those 'who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat', it is a gift fitting to the dignity of the human person, who was created to 'fill the earth and subdue it'(Gen 1:28). Through the gift of planting, tending and inviting us to labour in his vineyard, God establishes a relationship of love with us, which acknowledges our intrinsic worth as human beings and goes beyond this in offering us a share in his own life.
One of the dangers in our lives as Christians is that we forget that our invitation to labour in God's vineyard is itself a gift. This is the danger that the parable of the householder and his vineyard illustrates.
So Jesus is reminding us that every gift springs from the generosity of his Father, and it is not for us to place any limits upon this generosity. For whereas human gifts are often things we expect, even where we don't take them for granted, the Father's divine gift in giving us his Son is greater than anything we could expect or imagine.