25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Lectio divina on Mt 20,1-16
Those who do not believe in God, be they atheists or agnostics, usually don’t have any difficulty in relating to God – they just don’t bother. Strangely, we who believe often find it difficult to speak about the existence of God and his goodness. We cannot deny the existence of evil and the apparent triumph of injustice. Believing in God is not easy. The worst thing of all is that the most common difficulties are those we create for ourselves, either because we imagine that God is as we want him to be, or because we do not make an effort to accept him as he really is. It would be more reasonable to stop believing in God than to continue to create for ourselves a God of our own imagining. It would be easier to think that God does not exist than to form an image of him as he ought to be. This is the warning given to us by Jesus and we ought to take it seriously.
Jesus said to his disciples: 1 ‘The kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day and sent them to his vineyard. 3 Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place 4 and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.” 5 So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. 6 Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing around, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” 7 “Because no one has hired us,” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.” 8 In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.” 9 So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. 10 When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. 11 They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. 12 “The men who came last” they said, “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” 13 He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? 14 Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last-comer as much as I pay you. 15 Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why should you be envious because I am generous?” 16 Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’
- Read: understand what the text says focussing on how it says it.
This parable is addressed only to the disciples. In it Jesus brings to a conclusion his instruction on following him and the reward for those who follow him (Mt 19,16-30). Peter asked what those who left everything to follow Jesus might expect (Mt 19,27). Jesus promised a hundred times what they had given up and eternal life as well, and he concluded his teaching with an enigmatic phrase, the same phrase with which he concludes this parable: the last will be first and the first will be last. This surprising remark is the key to understanding the parable.
Jesus’ listeners readily recognised the reference to the chosen people of God in the image of the vineyard (Is 5,1-7). But the parable is about the owner, not about the vineyard. The owner is the central figure of the story. The narrator is not interested in the care he gives to his vineyard but in what the owner does. The vineyard is simply the place where he sends his paid workers. The account is a dialogue between the owner of the vineyard and the workers sent by him, in the course of a day’s work. The behaviour of the owner may seem reasonable but it is not. He goes out at different times of the day looking for workers. While there is work to be done in his vineyard, he cannot allow men to stand idle in the market place. It is important to note that the owner drew up a contract only with the first workers, those who started at daybreak. For him to pay the last workers the same as the first was unusual. It becomes an “injustice” when they all receive the same pay. The owner is just towards the first and generous to the last-comers. Those who did not understand, and it is easy to see why they did not understand, were jealous of the owner’s generosity. The unequal treatment of the workers shows that the owner of the vineyard pays, not in proportion to the effort made, but because they all worked, some more, some less, in his vineyard. The God of Jesus does not satisfy those who expect more because they have done more work. His freedom and generosity are seen when he pays the same to all those he sent to work in his vineyard. What matters to God is not the work but obedience to the mission. For this reason, the first-comers do not get preferential teaching; the late-comers get the same reward.
- Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Speaking to his disciples about the kingdom of God, Jesus describes the surprising behaviour of the vineyard owner who invited everyone he found idle to work for a day, and who paid them all the same wage, regardless of how long they worked. The parable of the vineyard illustrates how God behaves, in a way that is so unusual that it seems unjust. Like the owner who spends the whole day taking on workers for his vineyard, God never ceases to invite workers for his kingdom. God does not make a contract with anyone concerning wages, but it is clear to all that God will pay. God does not take into consideration how long or how hard the first workers have had to work, or how little the late-comers do. He values their response to his invitation more than the work they do. It seems unfair and the protest of the first workers seems reasonable.
The message of the parable is to be found in the unusual attitude of the owner. God is good to everybody. Privilege or merit count for nothing in God’s eyes. The fact that he gives the same to all may be unfair, but it is good precisely because God gives generously to those who merit least. Those who come to God thinking they have rights, will be confounded and disappointed. God is not just good to some but to all. He grants his gifts regardless of the effort we make. Objecting to his way of acting implies putting limits on his goodness. We have to accept God as he is and as he wants to be.
We might be inclined to think that this unusual attitude of God is only a story, another of Jesus’ parables. We still think that paying all the workers the same amount is unfair. But Jesus likens the strange behaviour of the vineyard owner to the kingdom of God, where God is sovereign ruler and his decisions cannot be appealed. Today’s gospel tells us that we could lose God and his gifts if, like the workers who came at daybreak, we object to God’s way of dealing with us. The owner who spends the whole day taking on workers for his vineyard is like God who does not want anyone in his kingdom to remain idle. He is concerned about those who are unemployed and he spends the whole day, as long as there is daylight, continuously seeking new workers. He is so determined that all should work in his kingdom that he does not stop the whole day long, even when the time for work is reduced. Not having a contract is not an excuse for not being invited to work. Everybody who meets the owner of the vineyard gets a job. If God’s kingdom does not occupy our hearts and our hands, and if we are not busy about his concerns, could it be that even though we have lived a Christian life for many years, God is still not master of our hearts? How can we say that someone is serving God if he is not concerned about the things of God and if God does not occupy his heart? Anyone who remains idle all day will never be God’s worker. Anyone who does nothing for God cannot expect to be rewarded. Only those who work for God in his kingdom will be recognised by him as his servants. If we do not find work for God and the things of God, it may be because we have not yet responded to his invitation to work in the kingdom. If we are still outside we should remember that it does not matter to God that we may be late in joining the workforce, but he does not want us to remain idle when there is still so much work to be done. In the kingdom of God the important thing is not that we were at work from the beginning but that we are sent to work. As in the parable, God invites to work all those he finds idle. God invites to work, and rewards, those whom he finds in the place where God wants them to be at the time of their invitation. If we remain idle and inattentive we will not receive God’s invitation. It is not that he does not want us, or does not care about us, but because we are not in the place where he wants us to be, or not doing what he wants us to do. When we are at work in God’s kingdom we become the object of his attention. It will be hard for us to feel that God is concerned about us, if we show no interest in the things that concern God.
Working for God is not enough to guarantee that we get our due wages. We must accept that God gives as he pleases, without imposing conditions or measuring our actions to see what we are due.
In the parable the owner pays everyone the same wage, the amount he had agreed with the first workers, without taking into consideration their greater effort or longer hours of work. He pays more heed to the fact that we respond to his invitation than to the amount of time we spend at work. His decision may seem unfair and unjust. If we were among the first-comers, you can rest assured we would have protested!
It is not easy to accept God’s way of acting. It does not seem right that those who do less work should receive the same as those who do more. And yet, like the owner of the vineyard, God does no wrong to those who have worked the full day. They receive the agreed wage, but God chooses to be generous to those who have worked less. To reward those who work in his kingdom could also seem unfair, since not all have to overcome the same difficulties. But by giving the same wage to all, God shows how incomparably good he is, far more generous than we could ever expect. He gives to all, the first and the last, far more than they deserve.
Incredible as it may seem, one of the greatest difficulties we have in relation to God is that of believing in his unexpected goodness and generosity. Precisely because he is better than we could ever imagine, we stop thinking about God and we do not work in his kingdom. That seems impossible, but it is true! If God does not reward our effort, why bother trying so hard? If he gives the same to all, what is the point in trying to be first in his service? Anyone who comes to God insisting on his rights and depending on his own merits, imaginary or real, will be confounded and may even feel he has been badly treated.
God is like the vineyard owner who gives a full day’s wages to workers who have not done a full day’s work. He is not good only because he is just towards the few who have worked more. He is judged unfair to some because he has been good to all. Anyone who objects to the behaviour of a God who is so good, runs the risk of losing him. We good believers, unfortunately, are the people who find it hardest to believe in the infinite goodness and unconditional love of our God. If we are unhappy because God is so good to people we think are not as good as we are, we run the risk of losing God and his goodness forever.
There are advantages for us evidently, in a God like this. It is not always necessary to try to be the first at work or to have worked always for the kingdom, to receive the same wage as the first-comers. In this way God consoles those of us who have not always been serious up to now, or have started late to work for him. What matters is not what we do for God but what he does for us. Let us start as soon as possible to work for the kingdom and we can hope to receive a reward that we will never merit completely.