Matthew 20: 1 – 16a
Is this Gospel about fairness or generosity? I have heard some people observe, just as those in the parable who worked all day, the landowner in this parable is not being fair to most of the workers. After all, does Jesus say in Luke 10; “the Laborer is worth his wage”? It could seem unfair if we look at it through the lens of this world that at times sees fairness as being more important than generosity. Even though the landowner paid those who worked all day the just and agreed upon wage, they grumbled when he paid those who worked only an hour the same amount. The line in the landowner’s response to their grumbling that strikes at the root of the problem is this, “are you envious because I am generous?”
There are some things in the parable that indicate the landowner was using this generosity to teach a lesson. He sent four groups of workers to his fields at different times. The landowner had a heart that didn’t want to see someone willing to work, out of work. At five when he saw some people not working he asked them; “Why do you stand her idle all day?” Their response was simple and to the point, “because no one has hired us.” He seemed moved by their situation and sent them to work, if only for an hour. When it was time to pay the workers the landowner did something unusual. Rather than start with the first group and end with the last group, he started with the last group. This meant that all the others who had been working throughout the day saw this group who only worked an hour getting a full day’s wage. It also meant that the others thought that they would get more, but they didn’t. All received the same daily wage.
When this is applied to the ways of our world it could seem that the landowner was unfair or unjust. After all many people meticulously keep track of their work hours, fill out time sheets and maintain it for IRS purposes. The claim of being generous would be lost in the midst of our bureaucratic ways let alone in the ill feelings of those who worked all day, or most of the day. However, when applied to God’s relationship to us, it takes on a whole different meaning. The person who lives an almost saintly life and the person who lives a life of sinfulness with no regard for God, who repents late in life or on the death bed, both receive the same reward – Heaven. The landowner mirrors the generosity of God with how he dealt with the workers with a true generosity out of love. It is certainly a challenge for us to look at others regardless of the amount of time, the length of living their faith and have the same love and concern for them. This might mean putting aside any feelings of jealousy toward those who seem to be making it into heaven with a “fire escape’ prayer, while we have worked and sacrificed all our lives to be faithful members of the church.
Conversions late in life, and death bed conversions happen in our day, and they are something to behold with joy. The message for us is to welcome with joy the repentant sinner, regardless of how long it takes them to repent. It is a lesson for us not to worry about the length of time one has faithfully served, but rather to rejoice in all who have served, regardless of how long.
Father Killian Loch, O.S.B.