September 20, 2020
At St. Peter the Apostle and St. William Churches in Naples, FL
Isaiah 55, 6-9 + Psalm 145 + Philippians 1, 20-24,27 + Matthew 20, 1-6
You almost have to wonder what in the world the owner of this vineyard was thinking when he paid the last workers first. He could have avoided the whole controversy by dong it the other way around. However, Matthew is describing the Kingdom of Heaven where the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. So, Jesus speaks to us about this and teaches us, his disciples, about how to reveal something about God to those around us. There something else here to wonder about. Why were those hired later not hired at the beginning? Why were those hired at the end still without a job? Perhaps, it is because they were known to be incompetent or lazy. Whatever the case, they were unwanted. That is an important point in this story.
We might notice that the grumblers don’t start their complaining until they are paid. They do not grumble when those paid first get a surprisingly generous compensation. They start grumbling when it comes to their compensation which is exactly what they had agreed to. They were not cheated. It isn’t until they start looking at what others have received that they start showing what we ought to call, envy. At first, they are reminded that they got exactly what they were promised. Generosity is the land owner’s right. The real rebuke comes from the land owner when their complaint goes beyond the matter of the pay and they say: “You have made them equal to us.” This arrogant attack on the worth of the late comers crosses the line. It is more than an economic observation. It is an expression of envy.
As before in this section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to the privileged, to us. To those of us who are here, who keep attending Mass at least every weekend, who make sacrifices for the work of the whole church, and who work long and hard at being faithful, prayerful always seeking the Will of God. We are reminded, even if it stings a little, that we are just as good as everyone else, we are just as good as any other sinner, or maybe just as bad if the secrets of our hearts were revealed. The real sadness of this story is that those who worked the longest and worked hardest seem to have failed to imitate the generosity and mercy of the owner. They could have at least rejoiced that there was generosity, and perhaps imitated the generosity of the owner. But no, they choose to act offended as though they were better than the others.
This parable is found only in Matthew’s gospel. As with previous ones it reflects the stress of that early community as their privileged position is challenged by the late-comers – those gentile converts. They were to be accepted as equals just as today, this first-world church must welcome the new men and women who come from developing countries. Jesus reminds us of the equality and solidarity of all God’s laboring disciples who receive the same food at the table.
Those who worked the longest and considered themselves worthy of more would have been satisfied if the owner had given out rewards in proportion to the work done. There would be some justice to that. However, justice and grace do not always fit well together. This parable reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven is based upon grace rather than justice, and that’s a good thing to keep in mind when we start thinking about that final time when we shall get what we deserve.