Matthew 20:1-16
Vineyard Servants
 by Rev. Richard A. Miserendino
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  Going out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.  So they went off.  He went out again around noon, and around three o'clock, and did likewise.  Going out about five o'clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?'  They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.  He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.' 

When it was evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.'  When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage.  So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.  And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat.  He said to one of them in reply, 'My friend, I am not cheating you.  Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what is yours and go.  What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?  Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?  Are you envious because I am generous?'  Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."

In our Gospel today, we find ourselves in the famed parable of the vineyard-owner and the hired hands.  It's a hard passage to hear, and immediately our ear is drawn to the end: "Are you envious because I am generous?"  There's a perception of an injustice somewhere in the mix.

Yet, the vineyard owner is just and merciful.  He doesn't cheat anyone and is kind to those in need.  After all, he agreed with those called in the beginning of the day to give them a day's wage.  Those who worked a day got a day's wage.  Then there are those who worked less. Notice what was promised them:  "I will give you what is just."  They also got a day's wage.  That might seem unfair, but the passage makes it clear that those folks weren't killers, rather, they were hunting for a job, and no one had hired them.  The owner likely took pity on them, realizing they needed to feed families and pay bills, and treated them with mercy.  In other words, he chose to go beyond what is just and do what was merciful for the good of the workers.  And that was his prerogative as the owner.  No harm, no foul.  Both got what they signed up for, only in the second case, mercy went beyond justice.

We interpret the passage as a direct analogy to salvation:  The owner is God, the workers are us, the vineyard is this world, the work is living by faith in Christ, and the "pay-check" is salvation.  The underlying message is that salvation is a free gift from God, not something earned but something given by God, riches bestowed as he sees fit.

Still, this rankles a bit.  I remember being a kid thinking, "Sure, I guess so," but still thinking it kind of wonky that God didn't give the others something more.  And this is because I think we often miss another detail.

Consider: The vineyard owner has a massive vineyard, he's likely loaded with cash, and has a bunch of free time to go wandering around the town during peak harvest.  He doesn't even check up on the people he sends into the vineyard or give them instruction.  Jesus' intro is not this, "Hear the parable of the incredibly stupid landowner who forgot to hire workers for his giant vineyard during harvest and so had to scramble to hire vagabonds the morning-of or go broke."  In my mind, the portrait that emerges is someone with things well-in-hand. Like most wealth landowners of the time, the man probably had ample staff.

The punchline: Strictly speaking, the vineyard owner had no need of any of the people he hired.  Would they be helpful?  Sure,  Many hands make light work.  But were they necessary?  No.  The vineyard owner hired all those workers not because he needed them, but because doing so itself was an act of charity.  Their calling is a gift, mercy for their benefit.  And yet, each of them was chosen specifically, called, and given the dignity of a day's work and pay.

Friends: the same is true for us, right down to the little details.  God doesn't need us, but he does choose us.  Why?  For the same reason that the vineyard owner hires: Love.  Mercy.  To save and lift up.  God's mercy exceeds justice for all of us. 

This leads to three takeaways: First, we are chosen.  God loves us and brings us here and gives us faith not for his benefit, but for ours.  Second, though we can never earn our salvation (even our jobs, talents and callings are gifts themselves), we know that God has called us to work with him and cooperate with him, and he will equip us for that work.  Last, we should ask ourselves what we really signed up for and what we expect: It turns out, if we've asked for mercy, forgiveness of sins and for eternal life, we'll get what we asked for and shouldn't be stingy that God would give it to others as well.  After all, it's not like our infinite joy would be any less just because someone else is infinitely joyful in Christ as well.