Matthew 20:1-16

Idle Hands by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

Home Page
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index

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."

“Why do you stand here idle all day?” (Mt 20:6)  The landowner of Our Lord’s parable is giving a rebuke.  After all, he finds them at five in the afternoon . . .  and they had not worked a lick.  The sensible landowner – a businessman – cannot understand their idleness.  There is work to be done, they could make some money, and he could use their labor.  But Jesus does not intend the parable as a lesson in workplace ethics or fair labor practices (as the curious wage distribution at the end makes clear).  He intends it as a lesson for spiritual life and the apostolate.  And in that arena, even more than in the workplace, idleness is deadly.

The saying is wise: “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.”  Old Scratch does some of his best work not by enticing us to do evil but by keeping us from doing good.  If we simply neglect our prayer and fail to work for the kingdom, then we have done a lot of his work for him already.

There is an idleness regarding prayer.  We do not bestir ourselves to get on our knees and pray.  We skip the morning offering and say perfunctory (at best) night prayers.  If left untreated, this laziness leads to the deadly sin of sloth – that spiritual repugnance to divine inspirations and invitations.  It leads ultimately to the atrophy of faith.  No one just “loses” his faith as he might his car keys or phone.  Rather, he loses it because he first fails to pray.  When not exercised in conversation with God, the muscle of faith grows weak and fails.

There is a deadly intellectual idleness as well.  In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis captures this point.  He depicts the demons as not so much getting us to think evil thoughts as preventing us from thinking at all.  It takes effort to exercise the intelligence – not only to think, but to think correctly.  It takes effort also to defend our thoughts – why we have come to a particular conclusion and why we think it is the right one.  The unwillingness to exert such an effort leads to intellectual sloppiness and foolishness.

This intellectual laziness is at the heart of our culture’s present confusion.  When we fail to apply our minds to moral issues, we will inevitably be carried away by obscure slogans that appeal not to the intellect or to truth but only to emotions (E.G., “Love is love  or “Born this way” or “Freedom of choice”).  On the great moral issues of the day, the problem is not so much that we are thinking wrongly.  It is that we are not thinking at all.

Then there is idleness regarding the apostolate – the failure to make Jesus Christ known.  It takes work to speak with someone about the Catholic Faith.  Because it means the risk of being rejected or scorned, we must put forth some labor to have such a conversion.  It takes some spiritual effort just to send an email or make a phone call that might bring someone closer to the Lord.  But the failure to do so means that the Gospel languishes and that indeed our own faith grows cold.  If do not try to hand on the Faith, we find that it weakens in our own hearts.

“Why do you stand here idle all day?”  The landowner asks this question not only because idle hands are the devil’s playground, but also because there is work to be done.  We know from Our Lord elsewhere that the harvest is rich but the laborers are few.  Everyone must do his part.  And everyone is called to this.  There is not cut off time, no expiration date on the invitation to go into the vineyard.  No person or group is excluded.  We should not fear the labor and toil involved in such employ.  We should fear, rather, coming to the end of our lives without having entered the vineyard. For those who do not enter the vineyard do not receive the reward.

Please consider a tax deductible gift to support this web site.

Home Page
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index