25th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sept. 21, 2014
Matt 20: 1-16
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matt 20: 1).
The parable that Jesus tells today is usually called the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. But the focus of the parable isn’t really on the workers; it’s on the owner of the vineyard. At least one commentator aptly notes that it should really be called the Parable of the Compassionate Landowner.
1st, some context. In the 2 passages in Matthew’s Gospel right before this parable, a rich young man has turned away from following Jesus, who apparently has told him that just keeping the commandments isn’t sufficient for salvation; he must give away his wealth and become totally reliant on God, like Jesus (19:16-22). Jesus then remarks to his disciples, “It will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (19:23)—an opinion that runs against everything that society believed then (and believes now).
Then the disciples question Jesus, particularly about the reward they might anticipate as his followers who have given up a lot of earthly goods. He answers that they’ll be well rewarded with eternal life (19:27-29), and he concludes by saying, “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30), linking all that to today’s parable.
That saying of Jesus announces that he’s turning things upside down. In our 1st reading, we heard something similar from the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (55:8). Jesus is reversing the way we are to judge everything in our lives. It’s the same saying with which he ends our parable today, and it also appears in the middle of the parable when the vineyard owner instructs his steward to issue their pay to the laborers. The parable illustrates the kingdom of heaven, as Jesus says—“the kingdom of heaven is like this”—and the kingdom doesn’t work the way most of us think it should.
What happens in the parable? A vineyard owner goes to the village marketplace looking for day laborers, as a contractor or landscaper might do today at the DB Community Center in Port Chester, off Mamaroneck Ave. near the A&P in Mamaroneck, on Union Ave. in New Rochelle, or in numerous other designated spots in our area. This landowner needs a certain number of men for the day (only men and youths in 1st-century Palestine; the women are home baking bread, washing clothes, fetching water and firewood, tending the small children), and he hires that many, agreeing to pay them a denarius, a silver coin that was a common laborer’s standard wage for a day—a basic wage to meet a family’s essential needs for the next day.
But the landowner returns again and again to the market: at midmorning, at noon, in midafternoon, and late in the afternoon. This is not the usual practice. In fact, it’s not usual that the landowner would be doing any of this hiring; that’s the job of the estate’s steward (the foreman in our translation). Doesn’t the owner know how many men he’ll need for the day’s work—pruning the vines, hoeing the weeds, watering, or whatever? If not, what kind of a businessman is he?
As we see, he’s not really a businessman but a philanthropist. He goes out repeatedly not because he needs workers but because all those men need work. They need their meager income to live on. There’s no unemployment, no health insurance, no social security, no soup kitchen. If they don’t work, their families may not eat tomorrow, and if they work only part of the day, their families may eat only a little.
The landowner, thus, is extremely compassionate, 1st, by returning 4 times to the market and offering work to these unfortunate men; 2d, by giving them work to do and not merely a handout, which, most of us understand, lessens one’s self-image; and 3d, as we hear, by paying all of them a full day’s wage, not out of “fairness” or justice or duty, but out of compassionate generosity.
Did those later workers earn a denarius? Did they deserve one?
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like this. There’s also a subtle change in the word used for the landowner that’s not reflected in our English translation. In Matthew’s Greek text, vv. 1 and 11 use the word oikodespote, a head of household. In the other places where our English text has “landowner,” Matthew’s Greek has simply “he”—except in v. 8, where, speaking to his steward or foreman, he is called kurios, “lord.” Subtly, then, we’re being told that this is the Lord’s way of operating, or managing a “vineyard” called the kingdom of heaven.
What is that way, that way that turns things upside down? Compassion for the needy—whether they’re needy in purely material terms (food, shelter, education, health care, personal safety) or needy in terms of grace, forgiveness, salvation.
Note too that the Lord goes personally to look for these needy men; he doesn’t send his steward. Jesus looks for his people personally; he goes out looking for them, like the shepherd who loses one sheep (Matt 18:12-14); he doesn’t wait for them to come to him, doesn’t dismiss them, saying, “Too bad, but I have all the laborers I need.” In another parable of the kingdom of heaven, a king sends his servants out far and wide to fill his banquet hall for his son’s wedding; he’s not satisfied till there’s no room left (Matt 22:1-10).
What do the laborers do to deserve such compassion? Just show up; just answer the landowner’s invitation. So we do need to do something to attain that reward we call the kingdom of heaven: we have to say “yes” to Jesus, rather than telling him we don’t need him, like the rich young man who walked away from Jesus; we have to go where he wishes with our lives: “You too go into my vineyard.” But he’ll be generous with us far beyond our expectations or desserts.
What about the workers who “bore the day’s burden and the heat” and got only one denarius (20:12)? For Matthew toward the end of the 1st century, perhaps they represent the Jewish people, who followed God and kept the Law for so long, and then saw the Gentiles, too, being invited suddenly to be saved by Christ’s grace and freely invited into the kingdom of heaven. In our time, there are still people who look down on others and don’t think they’re worthy of God’s attention and mercy.
But the last shall be first. Everyone’s welcome in God’s kingdom. Just say “yes.”