There is a lesson in Economic Geography in our Gospel reading today. I say this because the parable gives us an insight into the social and economic structure of Palestine at the time of Jesus.
Land was in the hands of a few rich merchants and the mass of the populace were dependent on them for employment. But of course these rich landowners organised things to suit themselves. They employed labourers on a daily basis so that they were not burdened with paying workers throughout the year when they might only need them at the time of the harvest.
This meant that it was vital for a labourer to get work during the busy harvest time otherwise he would have nothing to provide for his family during the slacker parts of the year.
This means that the poor were at the mercy of the rich; they had few rights and whatever employment they could get was entirely in the hands of these wealthy landowners. As it tells us in the parable, they had to swallow their pride and go to the market place early in the morning and offer themselves for hire.
This remains the practice in many places in our world; even today in London I have seen immigrant workers gathering at certain well known places where employers come to hire them on a casual basis.
We ought to be glad that in most advanced societies basic protection for workers is today enshrined in law. But even so there can be severe injustices and low grade workers are surprisingly often taken advantage of and swindled out of their just wages.
It is important in any society that a fair balance is struck between the rights of workers and the flexibility needed by employers to make a reasonable profit and so provide jobs in the first place. This is one of the basic principles of that body of doctrine that we call Catholic Social Teaching.
But important though that is, the subject of the parable is not equity in the workplace. Like all the parables of Jesus it is about the Kingdom of God. And like all the other parables it works on a number of different levels.
There are two main audiences; the disciples to whom it was addressed and the members of the Christian community to which St Matthew belonged and for whom he was writing his Gospel.
The Jews rightly considered themselves to be God’s Chosen People and in the parable they are obviously represented by the men who came at the first hour. The workers who are hired at the third and sixth and ninth hours represent the other nations who God reveals himself at later points in history.
The indignation mentioned in the parable arises because those hired first have become envious of those others who come after and who are rewarded by God in exactly the same way.
Instead of realising that labouring in the vineyard of the Lord is a joy and a privilege the Chosen People have come round to thinking that it is some kind of onerous duty and that carrying out these tasks means that they have earned a greater recompense than those who come along later.
This is a distorted way of thinking. The one denarius, which simply means a day’s wages, is the reward that God promised them. They get what is their due. But like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden they are persuaded that they have somehow been treated unfairly when this is far from the case.
The People of Israel were chosen by God not to be the only heirs to the Kingdom. Although they were the privileged group of people to whom he chose first to reveal himself and with whom he made a solemn covenant; God never promised that salvation would be confined only to them.
Their claim for special treatment is further weakened by the fact of their frequent faithlessness as is well recorded in the pages of the Old Testament and, of course, ultimately by their rejection of God’s only Son, Jesus.
What God does grant the People of Israel is the inestimable privilege that it is from among them that the Saviour of the World would come. And this promise is admirably fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, the one true Saviour of the World.
The other audience to which this parable is aimed at are Matthew’s readers; the ones for whom he wrote his Gospel. And this includes not just the community to which he belonged but to all his readers down through the ages, including you and me today.
We can identify with the latecomers in the parable. Even if we have been brought up as Christians from our earliest days we are still Gentiles and not members of the Chosen People of God; yet we are very aware that God has extended his extraordinary generosity to us and opened up for us the way of salvation.
This should make us constantly aware of the great generosity of God, who although he chose to reveal himself firstly to the People of Israel has extended his invitation to the whole of humanity.
We ought not to fall into the same trap as the Pharisees thinking that we somehow deserve the generous love of God. Neither should we think that living the Christian life is in any way onerous. We ought not to think that our new status as children of God lifts us higher in God’s eyes than those who have not yet heard his word.
What we are meant to understand from this wonderful parable is the tremendous generosity of God our Saviour. What is being revealed to us is one of the great promises of God that he will reward with eternal life all those who follow him, all those who respond to his call.
It is not for us to determine who qualifies to enter the Kingdom. God issues the invitations and he therefore is the gatekeeper; he alone has the authority and the knowledge to make such a judgement.
Our task is not to be constantly looking over our shoulder but rather to rejoice in the task that we have been given to proclaim his love to the world and to live a life worthy of his name. What he wants is for us to fulfil the task allotted to us and to do so with a joyful heart.
Not only should we be rejoicing in our own task but we should be full of gladness that God continues to call ever more people into his vineyard and that he will carry on doing this right up to the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour.
As St Paul says so eloquently in his letter to the Philippians our aim is that Christ will be glorified in us, both by our mode of life and in our mode of death.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket