Twenty-Fifth Sunday In Ordinary Time
The gospel of this Sunday consists of one long parable. It begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” The term “kingdom of heaven” in this parable is best understood simply as “the way God runs things.”
There may be some connection in Matthew’s mind with the preceding discussion about rewards for those who have left everything to follow Jesus. In Matthew’s time this would be speaking to the difficulties, family-based, economy-based, encountered by those who embraced Christianity. Whatever Matthew had in mind, the parable itself seems to teach the unearned generosity of God. Another approach is that Matthew spins the parable into reversal of fortune, as we shall see at the end of the parable.
The landowner arrives at dawn at the pool of daily workers waiting for a day’s employment. He immediately hires the first group to go to work in his vineyard for a denarius a day, the usual wage for a day laborer. Needing more workers, the landowner goes looking for and hires more workers at 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m. The end of the workday arrives. Time to pay the workers. There is Old Testament background involved here – that day laborers must be paid before sundown. Leviticus 19:13, “The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” Stronger is Sirach 34:22, “A man …sheds blood who withholds a laborer’s wages.” Also Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy…. You shall give him his wages on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down, for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it, lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you.” Thus we can say that this landowner acted according to Torah legislation. We can add New Testament confirmation from the Letter of James 5:4, a fiery denunciation of employ-ers who sin in this matter, “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord.”
Back to the parable. The puzzling characteristic often seen in parables attributed to Jesus occurs at this point in the story. All the laborers are called together. The boss instructs his paymaster to give the same pay to all of them. Those who worked only one hour are paid the same amount as those who worked all day. Grossly unfair? So thought the laborers who had worked since early morning. They grumbled against the owner of the vineyard, “You have made them, (those who worked only one hour), equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the heat.” Seems like a just complaint, but it really was not. Those who worked all day had agreed to work for the usual pay for a day’s work – one denarius. The vineyard owner decided to be generous and give the same to everyone who worked for him that day, even those who worked only one hour.
Is this parable or puzzle about labor relations? About God’s generosity? God’s lack of fairness?
A clue to what Matthew intends to teach by this parable is in the closing sentence, “Thus the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The conclusion does not seem to fit the parable unless we consider the context of the time at which Matthew composed the gospel. According to the Letters of St. Paul and Luke’s Acts of Apostles, a decades-long struggle had been going on, perhaps was still going on in the eighties of the first century of Christianity. It was the struggle to integrate non-Jews, Gentiles, into communities that began as a strictly Jewish movement. Could they be integrated? Under what conditions? Jewish Christians brought into Christianity a long history of excluding outsiders, even though their Torah and Prophets could be cited to justify integration of all peoples into one people of God. St. Peter hesitantly, then St. Paul with full throttle, began the integration, but with much opposition.
In this sense, the laborers who had worked the longest were the first Christians – all Jews. Some of them had as much difficulty accepting “those people” as some Americans have had in accepting immigrants – Irish, Asians, Cubans, Mexicans, Hispanics of all kinds. But the closing statement of our parable is not quite yet explained unless we consider the importance of the word “vineyard” in the parable. That word was intended to create a flashback to a vineyard parable in Isaiah 5:1-7. The parable begins, “My Beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” He tilled the soil, cleared stones out of it, planted choice grape vines, etc. The time came for the grape harvest and wine production. “And he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” A better term, sour grapes. In Isaiah’s interpretation the Beloved is the Lord God, and “the vineyard is the house of Israel and the men of Judah.”
What would the owner of Isaiah’s vineyard do? Remove the thorny hedge that protected it, break down its wall, make it an unpruned wasteland, let briars and thorns choke it to death, and no rain would fall upon it. If Isaiah were living in our time, he might say, “That’s just the bad news.” And what is the good news? Matthew will answer at the end of another vineyard parable – the Sunday gospel for the twenty-seventh Sunday of Year A. With an anger often displayed against the leaders of Judaism in his time, Matthew will write, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” Thus Matthew designed his gospel to demonstrate that during the time of Jesus the outreach to Gentiles was minimal, but at the end, “Go therefore and teach all nations (Gentiles) etc. And so, “the first will be last and the last first.