The reality of a parable: workers and wages

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A
Matthew 20: 1-16

I have heard today’s parable many times, but I don’t think I really understood it until I spent a few days in Houston, Texas, in 1990.

The parable tells of a landowner who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. He hires men at dawn and then goes out three more times (9 am, noon, and 3 pm). But he needs more workers and goes out at 5 pm and sees more men standing around and asks them why. “Because no one has hired us,” they reply.

When the men are paid, at the end of the day, the last hired get the normal daily wage, as do those hired throughout the day. When those hired at dawn arrive and receive their promised wage, they are upset.

I imagine many of us would also be upset at this employer who gives everyone the same amount and they would complain, and probably never go back to work for him.

In the parable the owner explains that they are getting what they were promised. What’s wrong with that? And then he asks, rhetorically, “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek literally reads, “Or is you eye evil because I am good?”

But this is not a parable about envy, though this is a good lesson to draw from it. It is, as Jesus says at the start, a parable of the kingdom of heaven. It is a parable about what God wants for us – to be fulfilled in heaven, the realized Kingdom of God. But it might also be a parable about the kingdom of God in process in this world.

And so, what could the parable have to do with our daily life?

It might not have a lot to do with the lives of many of us middle class people, but it has a lot to do with the lives of the poor.

The men were day laborers, jornaleros in Spanish, people who go out each day looking for work, depending on what they earn at the end of the day to pay for the family. It’s a very precarious way to try to live and support one’s loved ones. Though the daily wage might not be a just wage and thus may not be enough for a good life, it’s at least something. It may mean the difference between hunger and death by starvation.

But, back to Houston.

I was stuck in the city for a few days and staying in a barrio where many Central Americans lived. Every day I would leave to go seeking a visa to visit El Salvador and then returning in late afternoon. Every day I passed a corner where many men were standing around. I wondered what they were doing (and, of course, assumed the worst.) But one day as I walked by, a pickup truck stopped and the men ran to the cab of the truck. Some got into the back of the truck and it drove away.

The men were standing on that corner waiting and hoping for work. Some of them at the end of the day would say the same as the men who started work at 5 pm, “No one has hired us.”

Yet they, as well as those who worked from dawn, were hoping to bring home some money to buy food or clothes or medicine. They lived, as many poor do, from hand to mouth.

The economic system says, “Too bad. You don’t have the skills we need and you weren’t in the right place at the right time when we were hiring.”

But the economics of the Kingdom of God is different. People are continually being called to work and are paid what they need.

Maybe we won’t succeed in having a society like that, but I think we could do much better. People could be paid a just living wage, as the Popes have been advocating this at least since Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum.


Image by Cerezo Barredo

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