Vineyard Workers

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.’ Mt. 20:1


The author of Fountains of Faith, William Arthur Ward, once said:  “The mediocre teacher tells.  The good teacher explains.  The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires.”  By that measure certainly Jesus was a great teacher

As was common for rabbis of his day, he often taught in parables, simple word-pictures filled with images and characters drawn from everyday life like mustard seeds and fig trees, wineskins and oil lamps, money and treasure, stewards, judges, widows, wedding parties and children's games.  Over a third of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are made up of 38 parables, stories with surprise endings meant to challenge conventional wisdom.

While his parables are rooted in a specific time and place, they speak of timeless realities.  His images are part of what twentieth century psychologist Carl Jung termed humanity’s “collective unconscious,” an inborn storehouse of concepts or “archetypes” common to everyone, which is why these images resonate with people of every place and time. 

What Jesus preached about more than anything else, the central focus of his ministry, was the kingdom of God.  For him, the kingdom is the world living according to God’s will -- a spiritual place where the sacred touches the secular; the eternal crosses over into the everyday; where love motivates behavior.  Again and again, he uses parables to compare God’s kingdom, something unfamiliar and abstract, to something familiar and concrete.  He would say, for example, the kingdom is like… a mustard seed; yeast; hidden treasure; a pearl of great price; good soil and then tell a story to explain his meaning.  Of the 23 parables recorded in Matthew, 8 of them, including the one in today’s gospel, are about the kingdom.

Often called "the parable of the workers in the vineyard,” this parable might be better described as "the parable of the generous landowner."  It’s difficult to imagine a parable that is both more disturbing and yet more relevant to our lives and society. That’s because it offends our sense of justice and fair play; it puts a finger, none too gingerly, on that most common human experience -- the feeling that others have gotten more than their due and we’ve received less than we deserve.

Jesus tells a story about a landowner who hires day laborers to harvest grapes. He first goes out at day break and "after agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, … sends them out into his vineyard." The landowner returns to the marketplace to hire additional laborers four more times as the day wears on: at nine, at noon, at three and finally at five -- just an hour before the end of the work day. When the day ends, the landowner lines up all the workers, and begins with the last hired, who receives for only one hour of work… a full day's pay. The first ones hired who worked the whole day, twelve hours, also receive a full day's pay, because, as Jesus explains, turning conventional wisdom upside down, in God’s kingdom, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Imagine, if you will, Barack Obama or John McCain proposing equal pay for unequal work.  What do you think the tracking polls would show?  Admittedly, it’s not easy to sympathize with Jesus’ concept, but he’s not teaching about conventional notions of  justice or giving a lesson in labor relations.

What is his lesson?  Let’s look at the context.  In Jesus’ day poverty was severe; over 95% of the people were desperately poor and on the verge of starvation.  There was no public welfare system to provide for those who could not afford to feed their families.  The rule back then was brutally simple – if you don’t work, you don’t eat.  Nor were there any unions or labor laws to protect workers from employer exploitation.  So, to most of Jesus’ audience, the employer’s seemingly outrageous behavior would be understood as that of a compassionate person who has sympathy for the poor and wants to provide for them.  Recall that in God’s kingdom….love motivates behavior.

If we in the 21st century, like our 1st century counterparts, find ourselves identifying with the grumbling first-hired workers who "have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat," no doubt that’s what Jesus intends. We think of all the times we’ve arrived early and stayed late, all the committees we’ve served on, all the extra work we’ve undertaken for no pay, and we say, "It's not fair!"

This parable is a little like the cod liver oil my father, God rest his soul, used to give us kids when our bellies ached: you know… it's good for you; you trust the one who’s giving it to you; but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow!  Most of us today are born with a huge sense of entitlement followed by, at a very early age, a seemingly intuitive sense of fairness and unfairness. It's like Charlie Brown's little sister, Sally, in the classic "Charlie Brown Christmas Special." You may recall that at one point Sally is writing to Santa Claus and in the process generates an enormous list of toys she wants. Then at the conclusion of her letter she writes, "But if that’s too much to carry, Santa, just send cash." When Charlie Brown sees this and despairs over his own sister's greed, Sally responds indignantly, "All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me."

Apparently that's all most of us want, including long after we grow up. We want our fair share. We've got rights and the number one right is to have our wants met, even if there’s little distinction between wants and needs.  So we chafe, we chomp at the bit, we stamp our feet and wag our heads when we think we’ve been dealt with unfairly. We go to a high school reunion, for example, and see former classmates who never went to college. We've got four, maybe eight years more education than they have and go ballistic when we discover they’ve made millions in some rinky dink business venture or “pet rock” scheme even as we slave away working at a dead end job, earning less than what we think we’re worth. Driving home after the reunion, we mutter to our spouse, "Life's not fair."

Some years ago before he became Secretary of State, Colin Powell was in Grand Rapids, Michigan to give a speech. At one point in his inspirational talk, Powell went out of his way to say what most capitalist-driven Americans want to make clear, "I earned everything I have in life. Nobody ever gave me anything!" Even the debate over affirmative action is fueled, at least in part, by the notion that it's wrong to give anyone a break that’s not warranted by that individual’s effort.

Jesus' parable about the workers in the vineyard makes no economic sense and that’s the point. That’s because he’s not teaching about economics, but about God’s grace, which isn’t calculated like a day's pay. “God’s ways,” Isaiah reminds us in the first reading, “are not our ways.”  The full-day workers’ discontent, like that of the prodigal son’s elder brother, was aroused over what theologians call the “scandalous mathematics of grace.”  God, you see, lavishes grace abundantly, extravagantly, most generously, far more than any of us can imagine or deserve.    

That’s what life is like in God’s kingdom where mercy equals justice; where the underprivileged, the disabled, the poor, the suffering, the oppressed all receive special care -- defining principle behind the Catholic Social teaching of  “preferential option for the poor.”

The kingdom is, indeed, an extraordinary place, but it can’t exist without our participation.  The harvest is great and so too is the need for workers.  It matters less when you begin, than that you begin.   References and experience aren’t necessary.  Everyone, regardless of age, education, health condition or social status qualifies.  (God, you see, is the consummate equal opportunity employer.)  Fringe benefits are most generous. 

 The work is easy and satisfying.  The pay is out of this world.  And, so too is the payoff.   So, let’s keep on picking those grapes!!!


Anthony J. Sciolino
Isaiah 55:6-9
Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
Matthew 13:1-16a
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 21, 2008.  (Cycle A)