It seems that whenever this Gospel is discussed the question of fairness becomes the focal point. Was it fair that those who worked the shortest period where paid a full day’s wage, the same as those who worked all day? In our day this is a case that would probably go to the Labor Relations Board or to the courts, but things were different at the time of Jesus.
All the men were looking for work that day which is a good indication that all were suffering from financial hardship. Those in this situation looked for work to help them and their families get by, they probably also relied on the generosity of family and friends. People today are in a similar situation where they find a low paying job, have their extended family help them, and oftentimes rely on some form of government supplement in order to get by. All the men in the Gospel started that day in the same situation; they needed work. In this parable they ended the day in the same situation; the landowner gave them all a full day’s wage. Some of them worked for it, and with others it was pay for a lesser amount of work plus generosity on the part of the landowner. This might sound alright on a theoretical level, but in real life it would seem unfair. Those who worked in the fields all day felt cheated that they didn’t get more than those who worked only a portion of the day.
If we get so focused on the pay situation, we miss the point of a parable. Jesus taught with parables which are taking an everyday experience of life to teach a spiritual message. Jesus wasn’t giving a lesson on labor relations; he used this most common life experience to begin a discussion on a spiritual message. The message is simple, when it comes to God’s love for us it is not given in degrees; God’s love is given totally to all. It is up to each person to freely decide to accept it or not, but the fullness of God’s unconditional love is given to all.
There are times when people question why an individual who lived a public life contrary to the Gospel and boasted about never going to church is given a Christian burial. We don’t know what went on between him and his parish priest and the Lord during his final time in this world, whether it be during visits to his hospital room or a last-minute visit in the emergency room. We don’t know if the man had what is called, “a deathbed conversion.” Regardless of when the conversion took place, whether it be a lifelong faithfulness or a last-minute conversion, we all get the same pay. There’s no such thing as spending eternity in a half-way house heaven, it’s either the fulness of heaven or hell. Any unfinished business is handled in purgatory, but that leads to the fullness of glory and not half of glory.
On our journey of faith it is important to keep in mind the lesson of this parable; God’s desire is for us to receive the fullness of glory and in order to help us he sent his Son to die for our sins. He didn’t die for half of our sins or some of our sins. Jesus died for all our sins. God is generous to us. He does not hold back his love. May we rejoice in the love God has for us and receive this love in a manner that leads us to deeper gratitude to God and closer to him.
Father Killian Loch, O.S.B.