Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Pilippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20: 1-16

Turning Over Stones

Here are some stones I have overturned to see if there are any ideas underneath. I hope you can grab hold of something, pull -- and discover that it has some homiletic roots.

Jesus told his disciples this parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.

The marketplace and crossroads of major routes were places where workers would make their way first thing in the morning, carrying their tools, waiting to be hired. These laborers were the lowest class of workers. Their employment was often left to chance and for many of them the wages earned from their day of work was what kept their family fed for that very day or perhaps the next. In short, a day without work was a day without wages. A day without wages yielded disaster for a worker and his family. The Jewish work day began at 6 a.m. and the hours of the day were counted from that time; therefore, the third hour is 9 a.m., the sixth hour is noon, the ninth hour is 3 p.m., and the eleventh hour is 5 p.m.

After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

The pay, indeed, was usual for a hired day laborer. It was a denarius. It was not a particularly generous wage; but enough to support a family for a day.

Going out about nine in the morning the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them -- you too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just. So they went off.

A minority of commentators have attempted to paint pictures of idle workers waiting in the marketplace as purposefully idle; that is, they were avoiding work and engaged in gossip. However, most commentators speculate that the parable takes place inside harvest season -- the end of September. The end of the harvest season is marked by heavy rains which could damage the unharvested grapes. Therefore, it would be in the best interest of the landowner to hire men throughout the day no matter how long they could work. It was a race against time. In this light, the fact that men would wait to be hired -- even up until 5:00 shows how willing they were to work. Note that no conversation between the landowner and the potential workers is present here. He simply tells them to begin work and that he will pay them what is just. Does this support the urgent need for workers?

And he went out again around noon, and around three in the afternoon, and did likewise. Going out about five in the afternoon, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them -- Why do you stand here idle all day? They answered -- Because no one has hired us. He said to them -- You too go into my vineyard.

The motive of mercy is proposed below as that which compels the landowner to hire workers even at this late hour. More about that in a moment. However; note for now that the landowner may legitimately require the hour of work for which he asks; but there is no agreeing on a wage and no mention of a just wage as in the other encounters. Presumably the workers will gladly work for only an hour so as not to go home empty handed.

When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman -- Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first. When those who had started about five in the afternoon came, each received the usual daily wage.

The order of payment forces those who have worked all day to witness equal payment to the other workers, and therefore the literary construction of the parable creates a confrontation between the envious all-day workers and the landowner.

It has been said that if one reads or hears a parable of Jesus without feeling a shock or a jolt, then one is missing the point of that parable. It is at this point in this particular parable that one should feel that aforementioned shock or jolt. It is simply this: Why does the landowner give those who only worked part of the day -- even only the last hour of the day -- pay for a full day of work?

What is the point of this parable up to this point? What is the significance of the actions of the landowner? What does this parable tell us about God? How does it preach? A handful of scholars offer various interpretations. In short, the teaching ability of the parable is very flexible.

One original meaning of this parable may have had to do with the attitude of the chosen people -- the Jews -- toward the Gentiles. That is, if the Jews in the day of Jesus looked down upon the Gentiles; is this parable preparing the Jews to adopt the mind set that the Gentiles, as latecomers, will be seen as equals in the eyes of God?

In any case, is this also a future warning from Jesus to the disciples and the first Church leaders? That is, regardless of whether they are Gentile or Jew, they should not embrace an elitist attitude toward the newcomers into the Church? Is Jesus in a sense saying -- True, being here with me this early in my ministry is a privilege and a special honor; but never lord it over those who will become Christians later. All Christians, no matter when they become so, are equally precious in the eyes of God.

HOMILY: Lifelong membership in a Church does not mean complete ownership with dictatorial rights. New members from various backgrounds and ethnicities should not be seen as a threat; but a blessing and gift from God. We belong to a big Church with very high and wide doors. It is the responsibility of those lifelong members to make sure that the Church doors are open often and with a welcoming spirit to newcomers. An encouraging word to take responsibility to evangelize may be appropriate here too. What a wonderful interpretation this is to invite a new, immigrant ethnicity into a particular church.

Some scholars take the route of pointing out the great generosity of the landowner. Some take the route which points out the great mercy of the landowner. Still, others take the route which points out the simple fact that the ways of God are simply not our ways. The thoughts of God are simply not our thoughts. These routes are not completely divergent to one another; but an interesting distinction may be made between them.

Let us first consider a merciful landowner. One might point out that if the landowner was, indeed, uniformly and extraordinarily generous, he would have initially agreed to pay more than an average day of wages to his workers. The fact that he pays a full day of wages to those who only worked the last hour of the day points more to a merciful landowner than a generous one. This is a landowner who understands that a family is awaiting the return of its father who is hopefully carrying the means in his pocket to sustain its needs for another day. It is out of pity and compassion that the landowner is moved to hire at the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hours, and then pay wages for a full day of work. Otherwise, how will the families of these workers survive another day?

HOMILY: Our God is a God of compassion and mercy who does not extend his compassion of mercy based on merit; but on need. When we pray -- Give us this day our daily bread -- what image do we have? Is it sustenance that we earn or merit from God? Is it sustenance that we deserve? Is this possible? Or, are we asking God to sustain us out of his love for us? Do we believe that we are more important to God than the sparrows and that God knows every hair on our head?

HOMILY: In terms of how we treat one another, there is certainly a social justice homily here. Every human being, out of his or her dignity as a creation of God, should have his or her life-sustaining needs met. Although the attainment of these goods are often merit-based on work performance in our word views, can we get passed that particular understanding and identify with the compassion of the landowner? Without his mercy and compassion, the families of the partial-day workers would have gone hungry. Without our mercy and compassion, underprivileged people around the globe will go hungry. We are the arms, hands, legs and feet of our heavenly Father in the world. Let us work toward imitating God the landowner that gives out of His mercy rather than our conception of justice.

Can one detect generosity in this parable too? Of course, but not at the exclusion of an interpretation that points to mercy and compassion. Similarly, one can clearly see how our ways -- an hour of work equals an hour of wages -- are not the ways of God -- a full day of wages for an hour of work.

HOMILY: Although we grew up in a world of merit based earnings and rewards, we can not push this way of thinking onto God. All that God gives us is grace -- grace that cannot be earned or deserved. Grace is given from the goodness of God. Grace is not pay; but gift, not reward but it is freely given.

HOMILY: Does this parable illustrate what Jesus meant when he said -- Blessed are you who are poor for the kingdom of God is yours? The beginning of this parable begins -- The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner, etc. The partial-day workers would have returned home to their families with inadequate means if it was not for the generosity of the Landowner. The partial-day workers know that what they received was out of mercy and compassion and not out of justice or merit. They understand that it is pure gift; whereas the all-day workers believed that what they received was out of justice. Is the Kingdom promised to the poor because of their reliance upon the mercy and compassion of God rather than a merit-based, contractual, relationship?

Nevertheless, if these various interpretations were only points of this parable, then there would be no reason to include the reaction of the all-day workers.

So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying -- These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the burden and heat of the day.

Is the purpose and punch of this parable to address those who criticize and oppose the good news? Here we have a compassionate, merciful, generous landowner who seems to be confronted by envious and resentful workers who despite receiving just wages for the period of time for which they were contracted can not resist judging both the unworthiness of their fellow workers or what seems to be a transgression of what is fair in their world view of justice.

He said to them in reply -- My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous? Thus the last will be first and the first will be last.

Note that -- friend -- used above is a coolly distant address in its original Greek context. Perhaps there is a piece of us all that sympathizes with those who worked all day especially through the hottest part of the day when the sun passed directly overhead. The workers who only worked the last hour enjoyed the breezes of the cool afternoon air. Although the all-day workers received the wage for which they agreed, it is hard not to join them in their envious or resentful glares toward the other workers and the landowner. However, why is it that we tend to identify ourselves with the all-day workers?

HOMILY: Ask what character we identify ourselves with in the story. Does this tell us anything about how we view God? Does tell us how we view ourselves? Does this tell us how we deal with God and how God deals with us?

In many ways the ending of this parable mirrors that of the ending of the Prodigal Son parable. The character of the eldest brother can be likened to one of the jealous all-day workers. The mercy and compassion of the authority figure in each parable causes jealousy.

The appropriateness of the interaction between Jesus and outcasts and sinners is strongly questioned in the Gospels by various groups. Likewise, the appropriateness of a full day of wages being paid to partial-day workers is questioned by the all-day workers. Does Jesus use this parable to reveal what God the Father is like -- so loving, so filled with compassion, and so all-inviting -- and therefore what His Son is like too? Is the parable actually a defense of the actions of Jesus against the Pharisees and Scribes? As Jesus likened himself to the Good Shepherd, here he likens himself to the Good Employer. Some scholars posit that this parable may have been originally addressed to the Pharisees and Scribes but its audience changed when the parable was adapted to the community of Matthew.

Also, when reading this parable, one wonders if it is in response to the question of Peter in the proceeding story of the Rich Young Man. Jesus tells the wealthy, young man that he must sell what he has and give it to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven. Further, after doing so, the rich, young man has an open invitation to follow Jesus. He goes away sad. Peter then asks -- We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us? In short, Jesus responds -- you will have a hundred times what you gave up and eternal life, but many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. It is as if Jesus gives an answer; but also a warning.

Does this story serve to make sure that Peter does not think -- The rich young man went away sad; but we did not. We are superior (pride). Does this story serve to make sure that Peter does not think -- The rich young man went away sad; but we did not. So what will we get because of our decision? (quid pro quo attitude). Does this story serve to make sure that Peter does not think -- The rich young man went away sad; but we did not. He does not deserve any of the things we will get. (preoccupation with others). Pride, a quid pro quo attitude, and a preoccupation with others are sure stumbling blocks to an unhealthy spirituality and an unhealthy relationship with God. Perhaps the parable guards against holding these attitudes. These unhealthy qualities can be found at different points in the lives of various biblical figures. For example, Jonah sat on a hill outside the city of Nineveh and sulked when God spared the city. The elder brother reacted less than charitably when his father invited him to join the party that he was throwing to celebrate the return of his prodigal son. The Pharisee in prayer thanked God that he was not like the tax collector mired in sin.

Back to Main Page