Gospel Reflections

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Matthew 20:1-16a

Sunday Gospel Reflection by Sister Maureen Lomax

Published: September 24, 2017


“That’s Not Fair!” I can still hear my parents, teachers and other adults saying ‘Life is not fair!’ when as children we remonstrated about the unfairness of various situations. In our innocence we expected everything to be fair and without inequalities. When I shared the parable of the vineyard labourers with my ten year old great nephew, he said ‘That’s not fair! Those who worked longer should have received more.’ There is part of me that thinks that too, even though  intellectually I know this is a parable which is open to various interpretations.

The setting of the parable is realistic. It describes a common and familiar situation witnessed every working day in the Hellenistic-Roman agora of the city where unemployed men waited, sometimes all day, to be hired for work. The payment of one denarius (subsistence level) for a day’s work was usual and non-negotiable. The landowner accepted and understood the norms of hiring and paying his workers, as did the workers. At this point all the workers and the landowner were in agreement about working for a just wage. Regardless of the hour of starting work all understood that they would be paid a just wage.

A twist in the tale comes next. This landowner pays the same ‘fair wage’ to all workers even those who only started work at ‘the eleventh hour’. Hence  the grumbling of the labourers who had worked from ‘the first hour’. Their complaint may seem to be reasonable to us and the rebuke unreasonable. But in a world in which labourers had no rights and the landowner could do as he liked, the story portrays a very unusual boss; one who was overgenerous and yet ‘unfair’! The enigmatic ‘Thus the last will be first, and the first, last’ does not  immediately help further understanding.

What then is this parable really about? Mathew was writing within a Jewish context and most of his audience would have understood the familiar image of the ‘vineyard’. The latter would have linked in their minds with ‘Israel’, ‘Jerusalem’ and the ‘kingdom of God’. Most of the earlier parables given in Matthew (chapter 13 onwards) are clearly about ‘the kingdom of God/heaven’. Several (‘sower’, ‘darnel’, ‘dragnet’ especially) seem to lead naturally into a context of a kingdom in which status, long service, commitment, religious correctness may not guarantee that anyone will be ‘the first’. Is this more likely to be the meaning?

‘Thus the last will be first, and the first, last’ (Verse Ch20 v.16) echoes the response to Peter ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.’ (Ch19 v.30). In the latter context Jesus promises that his disciples will have ‘thrones’ and ‘eternal life’ in his kingdom. But all becomes confused – who will be first and who will be last? Is it fair that those who gave up everything to follow Christ may not be the ‘first’ in God’s kingdom? Is it fair that the chosen people, the Jews, may be second, third…or even last and Gentiles be first? Surely there are some guarantees! In the early days of Christianity, the questions about accepting Gentiles (non-Jews) roused judgements about who could be fully ‘followers of Jesus’. Who had a right or deserved to be part of the Kingdom of God?

In the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, who had a right to or deserved a denarius? All the labourers deserved payment for their work because they did what was agreed between them and the landowner. The landowner was fair to those who worked the whole day and more than generous to those who worked less than a day. From the beginning of the parable, it is the generosity of the landowner (God?) that enabled all the workers to enter the vineyard (God’s kingdom?) at various times of the day. Does the payment of one denarius to each worker signify some sort of approval or satisfaction from the owner of the vineyard? The landowner might have said ‘It doesn’t matter what time you came to my vineyard you are all welcome to work here. However, if you cannot accept that I am generous to all who come into my vineyard, then take your payment and go.’ In other words ‘Take it or leave it. This is what my kingdom is like.’

But what is God’s kingdom like? Many of the Jews expected a Messiah who would overturn the political power of the Romans and fulfil the Prophecies in an earthly kingdom. The parables and sayings of Jesus indicate a different kind of Messiah who would turn the world upside down. ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, Jesus said. It seems to me that the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard is more about recognising that the overwhelming goodness and generosity of God is at the heart of this kingdom. Within it there will be no judging of who deserves or has earned God’s blessing. ‘Why be envious because I am generous’ the owner of the vineyard (God in the kingdom of heaven?) said. Our real needs, as long as we are able to accept and share the God-given riches with others without jealousy, will be provided for. Who will be first or last is in God’s hands, not ours.

Reflection: The Beatitudes (Ch 5 v.2-12) come to mind:  Those who are happy/blessed, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

P.S. As I write this the devastation of the Caribbean caused by hurricanes Irma and Jose, the active volcano in Hawaii and other disasters are at the forefront of our minds. Life must seem unfair to those who are suffering. Let us pray that those who have lost so much may feel the generosity and goodness of those who are able to assist them.

  Since March 2017 I have been having a break from ‘responsibilities’ and have moved to Birkdale in the north of England. Apart from playing the organ for community Masses, continuing being a School Governor  at our Notre Dame College in Liverpool, visiting family and friends and doing little jobs in the house, I am enjoying some respite.

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