For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:1-16 – NRSV)
This parable is unique to Matthew.
The parable perhaps explicates the preceding verse: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30) In fact that very saying is repeated at the end of the telling of the parable (20:16).
Central to the story is the symbol of the vineyard. The symbol is used again by Matthew 21:33-44 in the parable of the wicked husbandman. The symbol used more than once in the Bible to refer to Israel – for example, Isaiah 5:1-7: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes ….” etc. The use of this symbol may be found also in Hosea 10:1, Jeremiah 2:21; 5:10; 6:9 & 12:10, Ezekiel 15:1-8; 17:3-10; 19:10-14.
We also find here a theme common to the Synoptic Gospels: Jesus reaches out to those on the margins. Thus Matthew 11:19 has already told us “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'”
God’s incalculable mercy seems to be the focus in this parable. Money and hours and the law pertaining to such things are all calculable. Mercy is of a different order. There is no way of quantifying that. “For as the heavens are high above the earth so great is his hesed (mercy, steadfast love) for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12).
A moment of awakening can come upon us – sheer grace! – when we realise that we do not “fit”, are not meant to “fit” and will never “fit”. Most of us spend too much of our talent and energy trying to “fit”. Whilst ever this striving to “fit” endures, we will never grow up.
The definition of “fit” is a societal fabrication. It is the “look of the other” (Jean Paul Sartre) that provokes us into trying to “fit” and assuming that, if we do not fit then we are nobody. Existence = “fit”. The issue of “fit” is the issue of accommodation and compromise and too often loss of authenticity.
Human beings invented “fit”. It does not come from God.
We are all in fact misfits, every last one of us. But we do belong, all of us!
A healthy society is one in which the participants know they are misfits and they know they belong. Their belonging generates their common cause, their care for each other and the possibility therefore of genuine community. Their “fitting”, on the other hand, generates a prison which may be mistaken for community. Iroically, when people are in that prison of trying o “fit” they are likely to behave in ways that are inauthentic and destructive. The imprisoned become imprisoning.
The experience of things not “fitting” – especially when it is your very self – can be unnerving. Just how unnerving will depend on how much we have invested in “fitting”. Things do not “fit” in this parable. It is not fair! And so those who have “borne the heat of the day” grumble.
For those who see the world through the templates of human fabrications we say: “They have every right to grumble!” The parable is gently but firmly opening another world, a world of belonging. That is a world in which we think and see as God thinks and sees. This is the world where mercy and love are the incalculable measure.
Only in God can mercy and justice become one. In a world where we try to “fit” things together, logically, mercy and justice remain opposed.
Were you affronted by the generosity of the landowner?