Today’s Gospel challenges our sense of justice. Its startling conclusion, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” does not sit well with our understanding of achievement and success. Truly, Isaiah’s prophecy is correct: God’s ways are not our ways – they are worlds apart!
To better understand today’s parable, we should note that Jesus begins it with mention of the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, he is teaching about God’s ways, not our ways. His story is not about payroll management. Jesus is focused on the Kingdom of Heaven, which is an integral part of his proclamation from the beginning of his public ministry: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17).
In the parable, Jesus likens the Kingdom to a landowner in need of laborers for his vineyard. The main asset of a landowner is his property, and it is of utmost importance for him that it yields fruit; otherwise, the land is but dirt. To make his land productive, he needs laborers – to till the soil, plant the seeds, tend the vines and harvest the fruit. God’s property is the whole of creation, which he desires to bear fruit – especially man, the crown of creation. The parable, then, is about a work that is valuable to God. In fact, in the passage immediately before this parable, Peter, speaking on behalf of the disciples, almost in exasperation, said that they have given up everything to follow the Lord. Jesus assured them that their dedication to the work of the Kingdom will be abundantly rewarded (cf. Mt 19:27-30). Just as a landowner chooses workers for his vineyard, so God chooses people for the much more important work of the Kingdom. That God chooses us to work for him is already a great honor and privilege.
But what exactly is the work we are to do for God? He does not need us, but he chooses us to serve him. Today’s first reading describes our task as a turning to the Lord for mercy. God who is all powerful is also “generous in forgiving.” We must turn to him and rely on him for everything. The very fact that we exist is because of his graciousness and mercy.
On the surface, the parable portrays a mutual need between the landowner and the workers. The landowner needs workers in order to get fruit; the workers need someone to hire them to get a daily wage. The day laborers follow the custom of that time, making themselves available in the market with the hope of getting hired. Typical of man’s ways, the more robust men get hired first. To work in a vineyard is physically demanding. Naturally a landowner hires those who are physically able to do the job.
But God’s ways are not man’s ways. His mercy is not human justice. Though he does not need anyone, he keeps hiring, even as the day nears its end, when only a little more work can be done. The workers still waiting in the market are the weakest – physically weak, or aged, or disabled; that is why no one has hired them. They have been rejected, left behind, and they have been rejected like this many times. They face the prospect of going home without earning anything, which means no food on the table for them. They are the anawim, those who have no recourse to anyone but God alone. God, represented by the landowner, still chooses them – out of mercy and not justice. The parable is about man’s nothingness and God’s everything-ness. God’s mercy shines brightest in the nothingness of man. As we proclaim in today’s Responsorial Psalm, “The Lord is near to all who call upon him.”
Mercy has been described as water-like. When water is poured into a container that has many crevices, it always seeks the lowest spot. This is what God’s mercy does too. It goes down to the lowest, the least, the last, and the lost – those who need it most. God is for us; he still chooses us, even when we are at our weakest, our worst, and our lowest.
When the physically strong who got hired first were given the same wage as that of the weak who got hired last, they complained. The landowner replies to them with: “Are you envious because I am generous?” God’s generosity can be found in his mercy. It is through his mercy that we get to be part of his grand work of salvation. We have no basis for complaining. Our complaints arise not from true justice but from envy – as if God’s generous mercy to someone else is an injustice to us.
A more appropriate response to God’s generosity – in addition to the obvious response of overwhelming gratitude – is to be generous with others. How can we keep for ourselves what God has so lavishly given to us? This is the spirit of St. Paul in today’s second reading. Out of love for Christ, he desires to be with him in Heaven. Yet out of desire for fruitful labor, he also desires to go on living and serving. The “far better” option is to die, “for to me life is Christ, and death is gain.” But there is gain in living as well, for it means giving life in Christ to others. Either way, eternal life with Christ or fruitful labor for Christ, Paul desires that “Christ will be magnified” in his body. This is to be our attitude as faithful Christians. We ought to be excited to do God’s work, and to “conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”
Am I envious when others “less qualified” get a raise or a reward? How do I show my gratitude for the great honor and privilege of working to build God’s Kingdom? As an anawim, do I rejoice in my nothingness and God’s everything-ness?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 16, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.