25th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o'clock,
the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.'
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o'clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o'clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
'Why do you stand here idle all day?'
They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.'
He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.'
When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
'Summon the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and ending with the first.'
When those who had started about five o'clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
'These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day's burden and the heat.'
He said to one of them in reply,
'My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?'
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."
I had a good laugh on myself when I read Sunday’s Gospel for the first time. My immediate reaction was something like “these guys need to see the union rep.” When I opened R.T. France’s commentary on the same text, imagine my surprise at his introductory remark, “Any union leader worth their salt would protest at such employment practices.” [p. 748] Although his commentary runs to 1169 pages, Dr. France has a way of cutting to the chase. Indeed, this is a provocative Gospel—who reads this text without a sense that the arrangement is unfair, that the early-bird shift has been “cheated,” if you will, in the doling of wages at the end of the day?
This is the point of the parable. The kingdom of God operates in a different universe of values, and this is startling and seemingly unfair. As France puts it, “we cannot detach ourselves from the ruling convention that rewards should be commensurate to the services rendered.” Put in a religious framework, we expect that God’s reward of his disciples should be commensurate with their performance; virtue and morality are zero-sum games in the final analysis. Again, to quote our commentator, [but] “God rules by grace, not by desert.” If you have been following the entire text of Matthew this year, his Gospel is filled with metaphors of God’s excesses; from the lilies of the field to last Sunday’s Gospel where a king forgives a massive debt out of graciousness. Next Sunday’s Gospel is a colorful rendering of what Jesus would later say to Pilate on Good Friday, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Nor are the courts of that kingdom.
The best theological lesson I ever learned came as I was entering puberty, roller skating with some girl classmates who were blossoming before my eyes. As we passed my house, my skate caught a crack in the cement and I went down like a harpooned whale. The girls all stopped and burst out laughing. I picked up a stone to throw in their general direction, only to hear my mother’s voice from our front porch. “Put that down.” But like Jonah in the desert, I wailed, “It’s not fair.” “Nothing in this life is fair,” came her philosophical response.
Through my adult education I came to learn that justice is a virtue, though the Catechism’s definition (para. 1807) is timid and archaic in view of Matthew’s Gospel: "Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good.” The end game here is harmony and good ordering. By contrast, the scenario at the climax of Matthew’s parable does not create “harmony;” it produces wondrous surprise among the late day workers and consternation among the early workers. At the very least, the justice of the kingdom of God requires a major reset in conventional attitude.
France’s analysis of the text [pp. 746-752] provides us with a richer explanation of the dynamics at work here. As in last week’s Gospel, the authoritative figure—in this instance, the landowner—is representative of the heavenly Father. The image of the vineyard will be used twice more in the Matthean text and draws from the familiar Old Testament name for Israel as “God’s vineyard.” The workplace scenario is the early morning job pool, where a landowner selects a number of workers given his needs for the day. Laborers enjoyed neither contracts or job security; a “day’s wage” was shorthand for the cost of sustaining a family. [I should add here that in my early days as a counselor for the state I shared a building with a private job pool, and very little has changed in the process…though the Gospel mentions nothing of prostitutes who start loitering at the pay booth around 4 PM.]
The critical point to be noted in this narrative is that there was an element of luck to being chosen at sunrise in the first place. There is nothing in the text which states that the other unemployed laborers were bad or indifferent; the selection process at sunrise is driven by the specific need of the landowner. In fact, at 5 PM, when the landowner encounters unemployed laborers, they explain that “no one has hired us.” [They had been passed over for other crews.] France suggests that the unchosen laborers may have been handicapped or passed over for some reason that made them less desirable, since the landowner evidently had place for them to work. “They are victims rather than culprits.” [p 750]
The reverse order of payment in the evening is an indicator that things are not going to play out as one might expect. The “5 PM crew” receives wages for a full day [i.e., enough to assure family sustenance.] The Gospel does not indicate what their reaction was, though we can easily imagine. It is the “dawn patrol” that grumbles to the landowner, though in fact the terms of their agreement have been met. Their distress is a perceived unfairness over the owner’s generosity toward a segment of the labor pool that, at the very least, has endured tough times landing work. St. Luke’s Gospel has a similar vignette: when the Prodigal Son is welcomed home by his father, the older brother becomes angry because of his father’s largesse toward the younger sibling.
France explains that the grumbling laborers make the mistake of setting “human standards of ‘fairness’ in contrast with God’s uncalculating love…. No one has a right to preeminence or to a higher reward in the kingdom of heaven.” [p. 752] God gratuitously bestows the rewards of the kingdom. From another vantage point, the parable here shows that the graciousness of God has been extended to all the workers, even the grumblers. The best take-away from Sunday’s Gospel is our dependence upon God’s judgment of mercy. While it is true that “using one’s talents” wisely is blessed by God, we would never have the inclination or ability to do so without the prompting of God. We can honestly say that we all belong to the “5 PM crew.”