“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” Jesus tells the parable of the landowner who hires workers at different times during the day. The story turns expectations upside down.
The parable begins in a simple fashion as Jesus says to his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.” As we listen to the description of the hiring of the first worker we might be thinking, “this is nothing unusual.” It’s the beginning of the day; the landowner needs help so he hires a laborer.
The story engages our imagination when we learn that three hours later, at 9 a.m., the landowner was in the marketplace and he sees “others standing idle” there. They are out of work, hence “idle.” Pitying their state the landowner sends them to his vineyard for work saying, “I will give you what is just.”
At this point we are gaining insight into the landowner as a person of compassion and action. He takes the initiative and invites. Remember the future workers were just standing there in the marketplace – it is the landowner who acts; his action was spurred by compassion.
Soon we learn that the landowner does the same thing, goes out and hires more workers, at noon and at three o’clock. He finally goes out at 5 p.m. and finds still more people out of work, standing around idle. Questioning them on the reason for their idleness, he hears the response: “Because no one has hired us.” So he sends them too into the vineyard to work.
At this point we see the landowner is compassionate. He sees the need of those who cannot find work and he gives them a job. Please notice that in the parable there is no mention made that the landowner “needs” more workers. His actions are motivated by charity and mercy.
Now the parable takes an unexpected turn. It is the end of the day and it is time to pay the workers. The landowner instructs the foreman to begin paying the last hired first. Surprisingly the group hired at 5 p.m., at the end of the day, got paid a full-day’s wage. Word of the landowner’s generosity must have gotten out because when it was time for the group hired first to receive their pay, “they thought they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.” Their thought does not seem unusual — fair labor practices would expect something like that. But the parable is not about fair labor practices, it is about the graciousness of God.
And so the workers hired first “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.’”
The landowner responds: “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go…. Are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus concludes the parable saying: “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The setting in the Gospel According to Matthew suggests that the parable is applied to universal salvation. The Jews were the first called and many accepted Jesus as Lord. They come into the vineyard. The Gentiles are invited later and they too are welcomed into the Kingdom and treated as equals. God’s mercy knows no limits and is bountiful and abundant. His love is gracious, freely given.
God’s graciousness is at the heart of the parable. God wants us to be saved. He wants us to enter his Kingdom. He invites all to share in the life of the Kingdom. The landowner is the one who acts first. Notice the future laborers are “idle,” they are not working. The landowner is the one who invites. He sees their need and he gives them a job.
His graciousness is abundant as seen not just in the employment he offers but in the wages they receive, which in most cases does not match the work completed. In other words, the workers hired later do not “deserve” or “earn” the wages or extra-compensation; this is freely given by the landowner. God’s graciousness is not due to our “work” or “efforts” but it comes freely from him out of love and compassion.
At the same time, the people who are hired by the landowner are sent to the vineyard to work. They do the work of the landowner. In other words, God invites us to work in the Kingdom. Recall the introduction to the parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers….” The work of the Kingdom is that of charity and compassion. Love for God and neighbor, compassion for the poor and needy, care for the oppressed and outcast constitute the work.
Recognizing God’s gracious love for us prompts humble and profound thanksgiving. Yet, we can sometimes be drawn, like the workers hired early, into envy or jealousy. This usually happens when we forget about God’s graciousness to us — especially in Christ Jesus. The life we live is a gift from God and one full of blessings. Thanksgiving is the antidote for envy.
Jesus teaches us about God’s gracious love and mercy through the parable of the landowner. Lord is generous in his love. His mercy knows no bounds. He calls each of us to life in the Kingdom and he invites us to share in the work of the Kingdom, which is love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.