Thought for the day
The forty-two parables in the Gospels are designed to take us up short and make us think again. Today’s parable is a good example. The actions of the employer and the treatment of the workers simply would not work today as a labour relations strategy and would also not have worked in the time of Jesus. And what is the point? Really that it doesn’t matter when we come to the Gospel, early, middle or late, by routes direct or circuitous, in full stride or falteringly: all that matters is that we come to the Gospel. Achievement counts for nothing; grace is everything, thanks be to God!
The door of faith is always open and you welcome us, O God, whenever our hearts are open. We are grateful for your loving patience and generosity.
Matt 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When it was about nine o’clock in the morning, he went out again and saw others standing around in the marketplace without work. 4 He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and I will give you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went. When he went out again about noon and three o’clock that afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 And about five o’clock that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go and work in the vineyard too.’ 8 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages starting with the last hired until the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each received a full day’s pay. 10 And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage. 11 When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.’ 13 And the landowner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? 14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. 15 Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
This parable is found only in Matthew’s gospel, giving a window into the social and religious world at the time of the writing of this Gospel. It is meant to shock and surprise because it seems to undermine much that is in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. Indeed, it seems to go against much that is in Matthew’s own Gospel, where we read: “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matt 7:2). The context within the Gospel is Matthew 19, which closes with the words which end this reading. Perhaps 19:30 and 20:16 are the real frames of this story here, on account of the theme of reversal.
It is probable that the parable is dealing again with a situation in Matthew’s community. The question behind the parable seems to be this: new-comers to the covenant, that is, the Gentiles, should be received on exactly the same basis as those who have been faithful to the covenant for centuries, that is, the people of Israel. The time aspect of the parable is the key: no matter how long or how short your living of the covenant has been, the very same welcome and grace are given to all. As St Paul puts it, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.
Kind of writing
This is a parable, which takes an ordinary situation, that of day labourers, and goes against natural justice to make the point that while humans must regulate wages for justice, there is no limit to God’s overflowing grace and generosity.
Old Testament background
(i) There is a broad background in the Old Testament, where God is the owner of the land promised to the Israelites and the people are his tenants and “employees.” “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Lev 25:23) With that picture of God as the real owner went a sense of utter gratuity for God’s election of Israel.
(ii) There is a terrific OT background in the book of Jonah. Jonah preaches and is successful and still he resents God’s extension of forgiveness to outsiders. The prophet rebukes God in these words larded with irony:
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jonah 4:1-3)
God’s reply, a little further on, is instructive:
“But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”” (Jonah 4:9-11)
(iii) There is an intriguing parallel with a rabbinic parable, which may be worth re-telling. Once a rabbi was asked by his disciples which commandments had the greatest rewards, so they could concentrate on these. He replied, I do not know. The rabbi told them this parable: there was once a king who owned a orchard with many different kinds of trees in it. He employed different workers to work on the different species – one to look after figs, another to take care of the apples, and another to tend the vines. In the evening, at the time of payment, the king gave them all different wages – one denarius to the one who looked after the figs, three denarii to the apple man and five denarii to the man who tended the vines.
The workers who received less objected, “Had we known that different wages were attached to different trees, we would all have worked on the vines”. The king replied, “But then how could all my garden be cultivated?” The rabbi concluded: however, I do know the reward for the greatest and the least commandments. The greatest is honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land. The least is this: If you come on a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, with the mother sitting on the fledglings or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. Let the mother go, taking only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you may live long. (Deut 22:6-7).
Thus the rewards for the greatest and least commandments are identical! In this way the rabbi explained to his disciples that all the commandments should be kept, from the greatest to the least. Comparing this parable to that of Matthew is instructive.
New Testament foreground
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:44-48)
The very same issue of the inclusion of the Gentiles is discussed in Romans 9:
You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God.” (Rom 9:19-26)
Verses 1-7 The story is quickly told, reflecting social and economic conditions of the day.
Verses 8-10 Starting with the last sets up the expectation that those who worked longer will receive more than the usual daily rate.
Verses 11-12 The logic is impeccable.
Verse 13 The same word for “friend” is used again of Judas in this Gospel.
Verses 14-15 God is free to give graciously to all. Cf. Rom 9:9-16 above.
Verse 16 The reversal of first and last refers to the relative demotion of the Israelites and the promotion of the Gentiles. The theme is an old one in the book of Genesis, where is arises in the form of the “reversal of primogeniture”. This is a feature of stories, in which the Israelites are the younger brother promoted, purely by God’s grace, to a place of eminence in his plan of salvation. The very same reversal has occurred now, quite paradoxically, for the Gentiles.
Pointers for prayer
1. “I was there first”. Envy easily comes to the surface when faced with the good fortune of others, especially when compared to what seems less favourable treatment of ourselves. Can you recall that feeling in yourself and what it did to you? Can you also recall times when you were content with your lot, even though it seemed others had greater gifts, better opportunities, etc.
2. A parent or teacher who gives a lot of time to a difficult child does not love the others less, but if we are one of those other children we may not see that. Recall a “Jesus person’ in your life who helped you to overcome feelings of envy and helped you appreciate that the apparently more favourable treatment of another did not mean a lessening of love for you.
3. Generosity can make us uncomfortable. We feel more comfortable when we see ourselves as having done something to deserve the generosity.
But perhaps you can recall a moment of great need, when you were at the receiving end of someone’s generosity, a time when you recognised you had done nothing to ‘deserve’ that response, a time when all you could do was to say “thanks”?
4. This leads us to the core message of this parable, namely, that God’s love is a free gift and not earned. Recall moments when you were particularly conscious of the gift that God’s love is to you.
5. “It is too late now” are words sometimes uttered to justify doing nothing about a situation. This parable tells us that where love is involved, it is never too late. Can you recall times when you got a positive response after taking action when you thought it was “too late”?
God most high, your ways are not our ways, for your kindness is lavished equally upon all.
Teach us to welcome your mercy towards others, even as we hope to receive mercy ourselves.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.