Usually, when a parable of Jesus begins: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” you know that you are going to be in trouble. The trouble begins with trying to understand the imagery involved in both parts of the comparison. One set of images for “the kingdom of heaven,” and another set for the dynamics of interaction between landowner and his laborers. Fortunately, in the Gospel for the 25th Sunday in ordinary time (Matthew 20: 1-16) the imagery of concern is primarily that of the landowner and his laborers.
Simply put, the landowner needs workers for his vineyard. So, he goes out at designated times during the day to do the hiring. At dawn, he encounters several potential workers, has them agree to work for a day’s wage, and off they go to work.
At nine in the morning, noon, and three in the afternoon he comes across other potential workers and tells them, “You also go into my vineyard and I will pay you what is just.” And so they did. Finally, the landowner goes out at five in the afternoon and hires the last group of workers.
Finally, evening came and it was time to pay the workers. But in order to emphasize the point of the parable, the order of payment was reversed, namely, he paid those hired last before he paid those hired first.
Those hired last received a day’s wage even though they worked for only an hour or so. Those hired first, at dawn, presumed that the vineyard owner would give them more because they worked the entire day, bearing the burden of the day’s heat. However, as it turns out, all the workers were paid a day’s wage. This aroused the ire of those who were hired at dawn.
They complained to the landowner because they felt cheated. However, the landowner says to those who felt cheated, “I did you no wrong. Did you not agree to work the entire day for a day’s wage?” And the landowner’s second question gives us the point of the parable. “What if I wish to give the others more? Am I not free to do what I want with my money?”
What we have in these two statements/questions are qualities of God, namely, JUSTICE and GENEROSITY. That is to say, God cheats no one, and none can limit God’s generosity.
All this boils dowm to the same question that we all have. Why does God seem to be more generous to others than to me? I offer a few suggestions that may be of help. First of all, God does NOT cheat anybody. All of us receive gifts and limitations. Our challenge is to find our what they are. That way we can avoid moping or feeling jealous.
As St. Paul points out, the ear can do what the eye can’t, so the hand can do what the leg can’t. But all do something different for the sake of the whole body. (I Corinthians 12: 12-31) We need the gifts of others to help the wider body function properly.
Secondly, instead if envying others for their gifts, we should value our own and see how they can help others. God’s justice is evident in that no one has been cheated of gifts. God’s generosity is evidently apparent in that we can use whatever gifts we have to improve the function of our society.