Workers in the vineyard

Today’s Gospel, Matthew 20: 1-16, is one of the most paradoxical of Jesus’ parables. It is often interpreted in spiritual terms: God’s salvation is given to all, even those who repent at the last moment. But I believe there is also another message hidden in the parable.

The owner of the vineyard needs workers. He goes out early in the morning and contracts workers for a denarius, a day’s wage. He needs more workers and goes out at 9 am, noon, and 3 am. He still needs more workers and goes out at 5 pm, an hour before quitting time and contracts more.

Then he pays everyone of the workers the same – a denarius, a day’s wage.

I never really understood this parable until I spent a few days in Houston in 1990. Several times a day I passed a corner where a number of Central American men were standing around. At first I thought this was just a hangout. But then I saw a pickup stop and the men ran up, seeking a job for the day. This happened several times, at different times of the day.

At that point I realized that these men were dependent on a job to pay for the day’s expenses for their families. If they didn’t get employment and didn’t get a day’s wage their families would suffer.

Thus the owner’s generosity is a response to the injustice these men are suffering. In fact, a key phrase, which is often overlooked, is the men’s response to the owner’s question, “Why do you stand the whole day idle?” They respond, “Because no one has hired us..”

In these days of massive unemployment, so many could respond the same. They are suffering because they have no work.

And so the generosity of the owner of the vineyard is a sign of God’s deep care for all God’s creatures.  God desires that all have a enough, enough to provide for their families. Our economic and social policies ought to reflect this – and not just reward those who have the luck or the connections to get jobs early in the day.

The justice of God – that all be fed and have enough – is different from the justice of the marketplace.  How will we make the marketplace more like the kingdom of God?


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