The parable in today’s Gospel seems so unfair. Don’t people who work longer and harder deserve more pay? How can it be just that the vineyard owner pays all the laborers the same when they have not worked the same amount of time?
These troublesome questions arise when we stand in the place of those who were hired first and who worked the whole long day in the sun.
It was at my grandfather’s funeral that I first heard an interpretation of this parable that made sense to me. The priest spoke about how my grandfather, who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, was like those who were hired last in the parable. He talked about how some people, when they are going on a train trip, buy their tickets far in advance, ensuring their reserved seat. Others rush into the station at the very last moment, buy their ticket and reach the same destination at the same time as those who planned ahead. The assurance that my grandpa had arrived at the same heavenly destination that all of us were striving for was very comforting to me as a youngster.
I thought the key for those first hired was to love the ones who got in just under the wire. But how to foster that love for everyone was a question that still stumped me.
A woman at a Bible study workshop many years later helped me understand this parable from a whole other angle. She was a single mother raising three children alone after her husband deserted them. She had little education and few marketable skills. Day after day she stood in line at the unemployment office, hoping against hope for a job.
As she read the parable, she remarked that the ones standing idle all day long in the marketplace were not lazy. They would gladly work if anyone would hire them. But they were always left behind because they were old, infirm and unskilled, unable to work as hard as the more robust. They were like her and the people who thronged to the unemployment lines these days, she said.
As she reflected on the ending of the parable, she observed that if the landowner had given the laborers that were hired last anything other than one day’s wage, what good would that do? How would they feed their children? Sure, she admitted, the first hired had worked all day in the hot sun, but they also had the satisfaction of knowing all day long that at the end of the day they would be able to feed their family.
Justice, in God’s reign, she proposed, is about everybody being able to eat at the end of the day, no matter what each one’s capacity to work. God’s justice cannot be earned and does not depend on how much you work.
This explanation seems to be much closer to what Jesus’ original audience of people struggling to survive would have understood. The assertion of the vineyard owner that he is doing no injustice to the earlier hired workers challenges those in privileged positions to examine their sense of entitlement. Does it take anything away from the first hired if the last hired receive the same wage?
The vineyard owner’s question in verse 15 points out the destructiveness of evil-eye envy in a community. The owner asks, literally, “Is your eye evil [poneros] because I am good [agathos]?” The question is about God’s goodness, which is extended equally to all, and how difficult it is for us not to look enviously on goodness poured out on others, even as it has been lavished upon ourselves. Is it not, however, a great relief that God’s justice does not mean that people get what they deserve?