That Gospel is coming up again: the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. For many, Matthew 20:1-16 is one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings, because it seems to go against our sense of justice.
For those needing a refresher, it involves a vineyard owner who hires workers to harvest his grapes. Anyone living in an agricultural area can relate to this. Harvest time has come, and hired help is needed, be it picking the apples, baling the hay, or combining the grain. The worker expects an hourly wage, as is only just.
In this situation, the harvest has gotten away from the workers. There is more to be brought in than can be done in a day—and farmers know that a day can make a big difference, when bad weather can unexpectedly ruin the crop. The owner needs to hire more, and, presumably monitoring the situation, goes out again at noon, at three in the afternoon, and again at five, when he finds workers still standing around and sends them in to help finish the job.
This much makes sense. The American work ethic would see in this that you get what you work for. Slackers should not expect more than they deserve. Don’t be envious of those who worked harder, and now have more than you do. People will say of their success: it was hard work that got me where I am today.
But this story has an ending that twists our notion of how things should be. The owner, instead of paying by the hour, so that the early birds get rewarded, pays all the workers by the day, so that all are equally rewarded. Naturally, the workers who put in a whole day in the sun are outraged to see the latecomers treated as their equals, and complain to their employer about the unfairness.
Now, if this were a present-day work situation, this owner would have a hard time finding future workers willing to put out any effort, and there would be complaints to the Better Business Bureau. But this is a parable, and we know the owner represents God. Even so, the lesson is not at all clear on first hearing.
Back in the days before most Catholics studied the Bible seriously, the usual interpretation of this parable went something like this: The Jews were the early workers in the Lord’s vineyard, and rightly expected to be rewarded by God as having served him well. But God allowed the Gentiles to begin serving him late in time, and God accepted them as well, much to the chagrin of those who had been first. And there is something to be said for this interpretation, which certainly would have appealed to early communities of Jewish and Gentile Christians; but it doesn’t explain why Jesus told that story to disciples who as yet had no inkling of the way his plan would unfold.
Another interpretation had to do with late-life conversions. Uncle Jake led a profligate life, and then came back to the Church in his 70s. Could God possibly allow him a place in heaven equal to that of Aunt Jane, who had never veered from her path of holiness? Much thought was given to this conundrum: how would God distinguish those who had remained faithful for a lifetime, from those who found God at the last? But the parable didn’t help much in explaining the seeming unfairness of this disparity.
But listen to the words of the Vineyard Owner:
Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily sage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? Matt. 20:13-15 (Emphasis mine)
God is absolutely free to give or to withhold. While he honors our human efforts, he rewards us in the way he chooses, and errs on the side of generosity.
This understanding of God distinguishes Christianity from many other faiths. We do not appease angry Gods; we stand before God mindful of and trusting in his mercy. Much as Karma might appear equivalent to our system of divine reward and punishment, this parable indicates how different the two are. And yet, some Catholics act as though they were the same.
How many Catholics uneasily worry that every act might be sinful, and obsess over unconfessed sin as they chalk up heavenly credits? How many multiply prayers in order to assure their place in God’s favor? This is not to discourage confession; but some hold back from communion over venial sins, forgetting the generosity of this God who welcomes even the one who puts out a little. Prayers are wonderful; we should be praying constantly, but not to earn ourselves a higher spot in heaven. We pray to be in communion with God and to seek out his promised mercy in our lives.
There is a book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It is perplexing to see people suffer even as they lead exemplary lives, and it is easy to question why God would allow this. In fact, this recalls the the incident where the apostles ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Being good does not earn us God’s favor, does not guarantee a place in heaven; being bad does not block us from God’s love. We have only to look at Jesus himself to realize that being good does not guarantee that things will go well--in this world. I had a friend who, when asked how things were with her, replied: "Terrible! But I've got God in it." Our reward is having God with us in whatever we have to go through.
God is not keeping score. He sees our fidelity and honors that relationship with his own presence: the gift of his very life within us. Just as a parent’s love does not depend on how many good things a child does, so God as loving Father extends his love to all his children.
So, to all of us, workers in the vineyard, God asks our faithful service. It is an honor to work for the creator of the Universe, the Father of Jesus. It is an honor to work alongside his Son, along with our brothers and sisters. He will reward us as he has promised—freely, generously, with great mercy.