The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, like several other of the parables of the Kingdom, is found in St. Matthew’s Gospel alone.
In the verse immediately before it, at the end of Chapter 19, Jesus says to Peter: Many who are first will be last, and the last, first. At the end of our parable he says exactly the same thing, though in a different order: Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.
This is one of the great themes of St. Matthew’s Gospel. We find it set out most clearly in the Beatitudes. In the Kingdom everything will appear to be upside down. Those are blessed, happy, in the Kingdom, who seem to this world to be unhappy. Those who seem to this world to be poor, are the ones who are most truly rich. Those who are most humble will wear crowns and sit upon thrones. Those who are put to death are the ones who finally possess life.
By the 20th Chapter of the Gospel, we are used to this theme; we like it, and we’re ready to hear Jesus speak of it again under some new aspect. Still, today’s parable tends to trip us up. The behaviour of the landowner here seems to us simply bizarre. The parable certainly can’t be offered as any sort of model for a just human society. And if Jesus is going to tell us about his Kingdom, we want him to describe a scene in which everything is peaceful, beautiful, loving and harmonious. Instead we are given a story involving grinding physical toil, hard-nosed financial bargaining, apparent unfairness, grumbling, and rebuke. The equality of the payment is hard to reconcile, too, with what we know about the rewards of heaven, which are certainly not exactly the same for everyone, and are certainly not to be compared with the rather low minimum daily wage of one denarius.
All this difficulty in the parable must certainly be deliberate. Jesus obviously framed it so as to perplex, to challenge, even to annoy.
In the context of the Gospel, his target must be the Pharisees, and other Jews who refuse to accept him. The problem is their attitude. With their ancestors all the way back to Abraham they have been called to labour in the cause of God’s Kingdom. And they have laboured: they have kept the law. But now Jesus is going to invite sinners and gentiles to enter his Kingdom too. He comes with wonderful news of God’s great generosity. Christ’s invitation, extended to Jews and Gentiles alike, will be the fulfilment of God’s plan of salvation from the beginning. In its light we will understand why God first chose Israel: not ultimately in order to exclude the others, but precisely for the sake of the others.
Far from rejoicing in that, as they should, the Pharisees grumble. They are bitter, and envious. They want at least a special, higher place in the Kingdom for themselves, because they feel they deserve it; they feel it’s their due. This attitude is diametrically opposed to the attitude of the Lord, and to the attitude of anyone who truly belongs to his Kingdom. So there is even a hint that these grumblers could find themselves altogether excluded: Take your earnings, he says, and go. If they do somehow manage to scrape in, it will be in the very last place. As for the first place: that will go to those described in the Beatitudes. They are poor in spirit and humble in heart; full of gratitude at the gifts they have received; astonished at the Lord’s generosity towards them; wanting only to sing his praises, in endless joy, and together with all others who share their blessings.
Let us assume, please God, that none of us here has the attitude of the Pharisees. Let us assume that none of us is even tempted to be envious about the salvation of others. Still, the parable has plenty to teach us. We note, for example, how the Lord himself actively goes out to look for workers; actually five times. So it is that Jesus was sent by God into our world, in order to search us out and bring us into his Kingdom. And still now he continually and repeatedly comes to us, and searches us out. Ever and again he touches us, with ever renewed grace; ever and again he renews his invitation to come to him.
We note too the irony in the indignant complaint of the first workers: “You have made them equal to us.” And immediately we think of how Jesus as eternal Son was equal to God his Father; but he humbled himself, precisely to make himself equal to us in our misery and mortality. Far from grudging our equality with him, he came to confer it: to raise us up to a share in his own perfect holiness, and his own divine Sonship.
As for the toil in the vineyard: there too we see a picture of our own life. The service of Jesus, we say, is perfect freedom. Toiling in his vineyard, in the vineyard of his Kingdom, is reward in itself; in itself it’s sheer gift, and grace. Yes, sometimes it’s heavy work in all the heat. There is a penitential aspect to the Christian life. We have to renounce self, die to self, daily take up our Cross with Jesus. But we don’t resent that, or grumble about it, or merely endure it with passive Stoicism. On the contrary: we embrace it, give thanks for it, even rejoice in it, because it’s all a graced means for us towards ever deeper union with Jesus, towards a deeper participation in his mission, towards service of his Kingdom: and that for us is nothing but privilege and grace and happiness and blessing. And then, on top of that, as it were, comes the denarius: final union with Jesus in heaven; our eternal reward, when his Kingdom is forever and definitively established.
We could define our toil in the vineyard of Jesus as the life of prayer, of virtue, of self-giving generosity, of love. That labour can be taken up by anyone, even someone handicapped and house-bound. As for the idle, the non-workers: they represent those who live only for themselves, who have no real purpose in life, who are spiritually asleep, or even spiritually dead. For them to be called to this work is an escape from futility and pointlessness. Through, with and in Jesus they are now sent on a mission, sent to give of themselves to the end. And for them, once again, that is nothing but grace and blessing.
If with most commentators we take the denarius to represent Jesus himself, a question arises. Is Jesus enough for us? Or do we want something more, something in addition to him? Such a question really answers itself. To want more than Jesus is not to have understood who he is, or what it means for us to receive him.
Now once again, in this holy Eucharist, Jesus offers himself to us, in his totality, under sacramental signs. He is God Incarnate; crucified for us, given to us, risen and ascended for us, pouring out the Holy Spirit upon us. As wages, he infinitely exceeds all our possible deserving; he superabundantly fulfils all our needs, all our desires. Yes, we cry out, as we prepare to receive him: Lord, you are enough for us, and we ask for nothing more.