"My ways are not your ways": Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 20:1–16:

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. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock, 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. And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, 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.’

“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 o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. 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 day’s burden and the heat.’ He said to one of 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.”

Of all the parables in the Gospel, today’s may have the most universal connection to everyday life in the modern world — at least in its literal sense. As an employee, and also as a mid-level manager, the issues of compensation, fairness, and mercy come up constantly. We have all been in the position of those who object that others make the same or more than us for less work; some of us have also been in the position of deciding who gets paid and how much, having to balance those interests so as to incentivize people to work.

Most of us deal with this very issue every day for our entire working lives, sometimes from both perspectives at the same time. Even while managing others, those in positions of authority also worry about our own compensation, and whether we are being justly rewarded for our efforts. The same labor-market issues exist at these levels too, all the way to the top of any organization. We all seek justice for the time we must offer to employers, and the natural manner of doing so is to rank ourselves with others in terms of market value. That ranking might be on talent, effort, time worked, or other factors, but we still compete with each other in those markets.

Ergo, the parable seems to hint at unfairness in its literal sense, at least from the perspective of employment. Those who work for others see their labor and time as commodities, and rightly so — and it has become customary to base that value on time. While they operate in a market where labor value might fluctuate, they expect to get paid on the same general basis as everyone else. If a worker gets $100 for a day’s labor, then another one gets $100 for an hour’s labor at the exact same job, the first worker will see that as an injustice — and again, rightly so in the literal and modern context.

Jesus knew that this was true even in the context of His mission. In the parable itself, Jesus has the first-shift workers objecting to the injustice of the compensation offered, a point that seems not just reasonable to the understanding of the marketplace, but almost unassailably so. He may have told this parable to deliberately provoke his audience at the time, and to force themselves to question Him. The Gospels do not record a reaction to this parable, but one has to imagine that its audience — presumably comprised mainly of those who labored for others — might have scratched their heads over it.

As with many parables, the point is not found in the literal sense of the story. Jesus did not tell this story as a discourse on employment ethics and labor markets, although sometimes this parable gets cited as such. In fact, as we’ll see, this parable warns against the impulse to see salvation as a wage to be earned, and in the reduction of humanity to its utilitarian value. Instead, this is an instruction on both free will, the consequence of being made in the image of God, justice and mercy, and the nature of salvation.

Jesus tells us at the beginning that this parable will be a simile for the kingdom of heaven, a reflection on the nature of salvation and of access to eternal life with the Lord. The landowner — God — calls on His existing faithful to work in the fields from the beginning of their lives, which they do willingly. He then calls others at different points in their lives to do the same, and those who respond to the call receive the same salvation as the first.

What does this tell us about the nature of salvation? This parable makes clear that it has a value beyond that of bargaining and negotiation — it is its own complete, unscalable, and perfect “compensation.” There is no hierarchical sense of salvation; either one receives it, or they do not. Whether one came to the field immediately or at the last hour, the compensation remains the same because salvation itself — eternal life with the Lord — is indivisible and unscalable.

With that in mind, we find that justice and mercy are not actually in tension with each other, but are warp and woof within the kingdom of God. The Lord provides the opportunity for salvation to each person, who can accept it or refuse it as a matter of free will. It is in this sense that we are made in the image of God: choice.

Jesus makes a particular point of this in the landowner’s response to the complaints of injustice from other workers. The man asks them, “Am I not free to do as I wish with my money?” This is in fact an unspoken response from the symbolic figure of God in another parable, that of the prodigal son. The father tells his servants to put on a huge feast for his younger son when he finally repents and comes home humble and contrite, causing the older brother to object to the unfairness of the reception. What does the father say? He assures the older brother of his own inheritance, but asks him to share in the father’s joy of salvation for both.

At a deeper level, this parable warns about our own sense of justice and mercy, and strikes at the rational impulse to define ourselves in commercial terms. That makes sense in the employment context, but has no relation to salvation because none of us are worthy of that compensation on our own. As in the parable of the prodigal son, none of these people have “earned” salvation, but receive it through the grace of the father. “All have sinned,” Paul writes in Romans 3:23, “and fall short of the glory of God.” When we see that all are equal before God, and all are objectively unworthy, then we can see both the justice and the mercy of the “pay” in Jesus’ parable.

What else does this tell us? Far from having a utilitarian value to God, humanity’s value comes from its intrinsic, sacramental nature — in which we are all created equally. The Lord loves us all, but rejoices on our repentance and desire to come close to Him. In that sense, the last and the first are entirely equal — and if we understand that, then “first” and “last” will have little meaning for us anyway. By telling us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, Jesus instructs us to put aside fallen notions of rank, just as He did when the mother of Zebedee’s sons requests that they gain rank over all others just a few verses later.

The overall point of this parable is to pull ourselves out of the utilitarian view of the world, of others, and of ourselves. In our first reading today, the Lord tells the prophet Isaiah that the ways of men are not His ways. “As high as the heavens are above the earth,” Isaiah 55 relates, “so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” We are called to shed our own ways and embrace those of the Lord, or at the very least put our trust in Him rather than our own understanding. Furthermore, Isaiah says, the Lord will happily forgive those who come to Him later. “Let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked his thoughts; let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.”

When the end of the day comes, we should rejoice in our own salvation, and those of our brothers and sisters no matter when they came to the Lord. Their salvation does not diminish ours in any way; it only makes the feast that much more joyous.

The front page image is a detail from “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet, mid-17th century. Currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary. 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.