Commentary on Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24.27; Matthew 20:1-16
THIS STORY first of all needs to be understood against the background of the early Christians. Those who have worked long hours in the vineyard, “who have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat”, are the Jewish people. The late arrivals, those who have come at the 11th hour are the new Christians, many of them Gentiles of “pagan” origin.
Perhaps today’s Gospel – addressed mainly to Jewish Christians – reflects some resentment on their part at the newcomers enjoying all the benefits with no tradition or life of observance behind them. One of the sad themes of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus, himself an Israelite, first reached out to his own people but they rejected him. He then turned to the Gentiles who accepted him and showed very clearly that the Spirit of Jesus had come down upon them in abundance. Truly it could be said that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”.
Nowadays, many people reading this parable have problems with what seems to be a quite unfair treatment of the labourers. Our reaction (under the influence of trade unionism and “fair play”) generally is that those who have done more, who have given more, should get more. Those who work 12 hours should get more than those who work for one hour. That is simple justice. Anything else is simply exploitation.
However, justice is the whole point of the parable and of Jesus’ teaching. If we have problems with the parable, it means that we are not yet on Jesus’ wavelength. It is put well in the First Reading from the prophet Isaiah. Let us listen to him:
Seek the Lord while he is still to be found,
call to him while he is still near.
Let the wicked man abandon his way, the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn back to the Lord who will take pity on him,
to our God who is rich in forgiving;
for my thoughts are not your thoughts,
my ways not your ways – it is the Lord who speaks.
Yes, the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways,
my thoughts above your thoughts.
A different viewpoint
What this means is that we have to look at this story from a very different point of view. We have to learn what God’s justice is like. Another name for God’s justice is mercy and compassion. In the eyes of the world it can sometimes seem very unjust. In the parable the point being made is not that the longer workers got less than what was their due but that the later workers got exactly the same treatment from their master.
Things are not being measured according to individual output but according to need. All, early or late, have exactly the same need for God’s mercy and God’s love and everyone gets all of it.
So, rather than criticising God for acting this way, we should be deeply grateful. Sometimes we, who have borne the heat of the day and tried over many years to live up to the demands of the Gospel, may regard it unfair that a person, who has led a terribly immoral pagan life, can have a last-minute conversion and die in God’s love.
There are two things that can be said about that:
a. The first is that we ourselves should be grateful that our God is ready to accept us back at any stage once we express sorrow for our sins and wish to be reunited with him in love. God – as the life of Jesus clearly manifests again and again – is ready to accept the sinner back at any time, even at the 11th hour. God has a notoriously short memory as far as our past is concerned. This is something that we should be deeply grateful for.
b. Secondly, it is a strange way of looking at our Christian way of life to think that, by following it, we are losing out to people who live a life of sin and immorality. It is the person who lives a life based on the Gospel values of truth, love, generosity, sharing, and justice who experiences real happiness. The life of sin is often based on a futile search for happiness through pleasure and enjoyment.
Freedom in Christ
The high point of Christian freedom is expressed by Paul in today’s Second Reading from his letter to the Christian community at Philippi in northern Greece. Paul is in prison and faces the possibility of being executed for his Christian faith. But he is ready:
Christ will be glorified in my body,
whether by my life or by my death.
Life to me, of course, is Christ,
but then death would bring me something more;
but then again, if living in this body means doing work
which is having good results – I do not know what I would choose.
I am caught in this dilemma:
I want to be gone and to be with Christ,
which would be very much the better,
but for me to stay alive in this body
is a more urgent need for your sake.
This is an extraordinary example of what is known as Ignatian “indifference”, that is, the perfect acceptance of what God wants, the perfect acceptance of God’s ways and the total merging of my vision with his. And this is done actively, not passively. Let us ask him that we may have the same level of freedom and generosity in our own lives. For there is the secret of our real happiness.