Magis (Matthew 20:1-16)

by | Sep 23, 2020 | Formation, Reflections | 2 comments

“I’ve got you figured out! I can predict just what you’re going to do, say and think.” Not many would thrill to hear those words. No matter how well I know another, my knowledge can’t take in the entirety of that individual. And the reverse, the times I had somebody figured out, but then watched him do something so totally unexpected it shattered the box into which I had stuffed him.

It’s no surprise that this tendency to underestimate the other carries over to our relationship with God.  The Bible is one constant push to expand the contours of the Holy. And in his words, attitudes and actions, The Lord Jesus is forever widening our feel for who God is, stretching our awareness of His Father’s identity.  Especially through his parables does he drive home this point, “Your God is too small.”

Perhaps the clearest of these in the one in Mt’s 20th chapter about the hired workers. Like all the parables, this one entices (“teases”) us to dig deeper into its many meanings.

When we first meet that early morning crew who got paid the same as the latecomers, more likely we side with them. “Same pay for 1 hour’s work at sundown as for our 12 brutal hours under a blazing desert sun? Unfair!”

But as the story evolves, we come to understand that the issue isn’t their wage. They were paid according to the contract. Missing is their ability to comprehend the size of the Owner’s heart. They are weighing on the scale of “We worked longer than they did!” The Master is operating from a whole different set of measurements, ones that pay the set wage but then spill over into lavish goodness, outrageous generosity.

Jesus’ point is that their estimation the wideness of the Master’s heart falls way short. Such openhandedness is unimaginable and to comprehend it their minds and hearts would have to be stretched (“blown”) far beyond present size.

While there are other lessons in the parable (for instance, a Master solicitous for people who can’t find work), the one about misjudging the Owners goodness strikes a familiar chord.

For one, there is the Jesuit one-word motto, “magis,” the Latin for “more,” meant to remind them that God is always “more than,” always greater.  But greater than what? Greater than any notion we could ever conjure up of the height and depth of who God really is.

Notice the different ways Jesus is portrayed in art. Living in First Century Palestine, we know he was a Jewish man and undoubtedly looked like one. But around the world today, you discover him in the guise of many different ethnicities – the Chinese Jesus, the African one, the Latino appearance, etc. This palate of different faces resists a reflex to limit our image of the Risen Jesus to a white male only.

But perhaps most to the point are the places we expect God to show up in our own lives. There is the praying we do and our sharing in the Eucharist, but what about outside these formal times? Could, for instance, God be spotted in an act of generosity, a woman forgiving the loan she made to a needy relative. Could Jesus’ Spirit be sensed when someone’s perception of who really counts in our society gets stretched to include people he had always considered outsiders? Or could the touch of God’s hand be felt during a St. Vincent de Paul visit when watching the caring way a partner treats an impoverished family as if she would her own.

In his evocative parable of the vineyard owner, Jesus teases out the question of “the size of my God.” Using His soundbite of the extravagant Landlord, He stretches our awareness of where He lives among us as we move down the road toward union with His dear Father — and indeed with all of creation.

God is “always greater.” The Lord is present in ways “more than” we can ever take in.


  1. Sr. Rosanne Tanzola, D.Min

    Thank you, Fr. McKenna, your imagery here is just so sharp.
    We do attempt to squeeze sure God into a box and once in a while we must admit it. You write well, Tom. I am happy to see it because I know therein lies a sound message that I was meant to receive.
    Be well!

  2. Gloria Jones, op

    Always you have the gift of breaking open the Scripture and letting in more light…and in turn stretching my heart and understanding!! Thank you again and again! May the Word alive within you continue to become grace for so many!

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