“Whoa, that’s not fair!” or “Wow, isn’t that great!” These are two of the possible reactions to the parable Jesus offers us in today’s gospel. The story challenges us to take a second look at the way we see things.
The parable tells the story of a landowner who is hiring workers for his vineyard. He goes out and finds some workers, agrees to the wages and they go off to work. He goes out again at 9:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m. and does the same. At 6:00 p.m., it was time to settle accounts. He called those hired last, at 5:00 p.m., and gave them a full day’s wage. Then he worked his way backwards.
The first group of workers, seeing that the last group got a full day’s earnings, thought they would get more. They did not and became angry. Their perception was that this was unjust. The owner replies to one of them: ‘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?” Jesus then gives a teaching: “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Many scripture scholars note that one interpretation of the parable has to do with the covenant. God established His covenant with the Jewish people. Jesus is a Jew. Many Jews follow Jesus – all the apostles and his closest friends – were all Jewish. The leadership of the Jewish people, however, rejected him. Perhaps He is referring to this group as representing those who were “hired first.” On another level, the parable can be interpreted through the lens of a personal experience of God’s graciousness.
God’s graciousness, which is an aspect of His love and mercy, is abundant. It is His to give and it is freely given. It’s acceptance is not forced. It is abundant. It is fair and just. He gives to each according to his need. Anything he gives is undeserved – it is a gift. The clever parable forces us to wrestle with His graciousness.
The parable takes a situation that almost everyone could relate to as far as what would be “fair” labor practice. If we hear the parable from this point-of-view, most of us would probably expect those hired first to get more pay. Many would agree with the objections which these workers raise. Jesus uses this to have us go deeper into reflection. He is not talking or teaching, at this point, about fair labor practices. He introduces the parable with the familiar phrase: “The kingdom of heaven is like….” He is talking about God and his relationship with mankind and human beings.
The message of the parable has some similarities to the story of the Prodigal Son (I’m using this title here for convenience; there is no title for the story in the gospel; many scholars today question the value of using “Prodigal Son” as the title; when clearly it is the “Gracious [or merciful, or loving] Father” who is the central figure in the story). The reaction of the older brother to his younger sibling’s return is somewhat akin to the workers hired first in today’s parable. When the Father notices the older son not participating in the celebration of his brother’s return, he goes out to find him. The older son says: ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ (Luke 15:29-30) His Father then says to him in reply: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32)
The prophet Isaiah, in the first reading, opens his oracle: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call to him while he is still near.” He then calls for the “scoundrel” and “wicked” to turn from evil and seek God’s mercy – for His mercy is always available. He can and will heal those who seek Him. When dealing with the “wicked” or “scoundrel,” societies may think in terms of retribution, revenge or punishment; God thinks in terms of healing and forgiveness. Perhaps this is why the prophet, speaking for God, says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
Jesus’ ministry itself witnesses to the Father’s way. Look at those Jesus chose to be apostles. Not the great or learned or powerful or influential – of that group, He called four fishermen, a tax-collector and a zealot. Or how often do we hear the comment that Jesus eats and associates with tax-collectors, sinners, and prostitutes. There are no barriers to His love. No walls to His mercy. So the psalmist says: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.”
God’s gracious love abounds. The mystery unfolds before us everyday. He is good and kind and forgiving to us and to those around us. Perhaps one question we can ponder today is how do we respond when we see His goodness to another? Do we say: “Whoa, that’s not fair!” or do we say: “Wow, isn’t that awesome!”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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