Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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. It 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 parable (20:16). The saying indicates 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 and incomprehensible mercy seems to be the focus in this parable. Money and hours and the law pertaining to such things are all calculable and comprehensible. Mercy is of a different order. There is no way of quantifying that. It has a logic of its own. “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).
the kingdom of heaven is like: The reference is to the dynamic in the story, not just the landowner.
vineyard: 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 is 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.
went out early in the morning to hire laborers: Jesus’ listeners would have been very familiar with this practice. Everything in this story is thoroughly comprehensible except the settling of accounts. This landowner represents something very special: “Peter and the rest of the Twelve have indeed left all for Christ, but they must not think that their priority in time gives them an overwhelming advantage. The new parable impresses these lessons, but adds an even more important one—God acts toward us in sheer grace. There is no question of salvation being an arithmetical process, adding up the good deeds and the bad ones and coming out with salvation or loss according to whether the balance is on the credit or debit side. That is not the way to understand the dealings of a gracious God” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 498-499).
friend: The landowner addresses the complainant in a very respectful manner. The Greek noun – Hetaire, meaning “friend” or “comrade” – is used similarly by Matthew in the parable of the wedding guests (22:12) and when Jesus greets Judas in the garden (26:50).
Thinking about thinking
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 20:1-16 – Jesus tells a parable that challenges our thinking. We are probably inclined to think that those workers who bore the heat of the day should have been paid more. Yes, they got the amount that they had agreed upon. But still, it seems reasonable that they would expect more when they saw what the landowner paid the latecomers. The kingdom of heaven is like this?
We must resist the temptation to reduce the parable to an allegory or moral fable, drawing lessons for “right behaviour”. The primary question is not, “What lesson can I learn here?” but “What is happening in this story?” Let the parable take hold in your imagination. Let it happen according to his word!
At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew tells us, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (3:1-2). Matthew then tells us that Jesus proclaimed the same message – see 4:17. The Greek verb metanoeō – here translated as “repent” – “involves a willingness to turn one’s life around in the sense of a complete reorientation” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 51). This includes a whole new way of thinking.
The Prophet Isaiah has prepared us for this moment: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9). The Incarnation demands that we think differently about history, society, politics, culture, religion and what it means to be a human being. Jesus and his teaching call for both change in the way we think as well as what we think.
This new “way” and “what” of thinking is at the heart of St Paul’s stunning observation: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:9-12).
We live in a culture that is dominated by a specific way of thinking – one that tends to also determine what we think. It is the “way” and the “what” of the hard sciences. We call it rationalism. Poets and mystics do not think that way. As a consequence, poets and mystics discover horizons of truth, goodness and beauty that rationalism can never know. Jesus is both poet and mystic. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).