Two attitudes vie for center stage in American life. One is a great sense of fairness and concern for equal rights: equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity for all. The other is concern for the underdog: joy when the last become first or the small college upsets a national power on an autumn afternoon; rooting against the Yankees in the “fall classic;” rags-to-riches success stories. Today’s Gospel seems to challenge fairness, preferring concern for the “last.”
Though often called “The Parable of the Vineyard Workers,” the story’s central character is the landowner, who appears at the axial moments in the story and determines its shape. In a scene not unlike the stirring images from the film “On the Waterfront,” day laborers are lined up waiting for work, most likely as the harvest season draws to a close. The landowner offers them the usual daily wage (one denarius), and happily they go off to work. Then a strange sequence unfolds. The landowner goes out again at nine, noon and three in the afternoon and hires more laborers for a wage simply called “just.” More surprisingly, he goes out once more near the end of the work day, finds straggling would-be workers and hires them (with no salary stipulated). At this point the parable’s focus becomes the surprisingly generous landowner. Jesus’ hearers might think of a bountiful God always ready to share his goodness.
The mood shifts dramatically when payment time comes. Not the owner, but the foreman is to distribute the wages in a somewhat illogical manner: “beginning with the last and ending with the first” (that is, the 12-hour workers). This is an instance of the power of the Gospel parables to orient by disorienting. When the realism of the parable breaks down, the deeper meaning of the parable emerges. Those who had barely worked up a sweat receive a denarius, and we can almost hear the rest of the workers chatting approvingly in the hope of receiving more. Yet each receives the same daily wage.
Their anticipated joy turns immediately to grumbling. “These last ones worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the day’s burden and the heat.” The generous and good landowner now seems to be both legalistic and arbitrary, saying that he did them “no injustice” (more accurate than the Lectionary’s “not cheating”), and that he can do with his resources what he wants.
Does this parable summon us simply to stand in awe, with Isaiah, over the mysterious ways of God? Yet the surprise of the parable is provocative today. Essential to its interpretation is the fact that the order of justice is maintained. The grumbling workers received what they agreed upon. Justice provides the background against which goodness can appear as true goodness. The grumblers’ complaint is not simply economic, but that “you have made them equal to us.” They are defining their personal worth in contrast to others. They are not so much angered by what happened to them as envious of the good fortune of others. They are so enclosed in their understanding of justice that it alone becomes the norm by which they relate to others, and they want to order the world by their norms, which limit the landowner’s freedom and exclude his startling generosity.
The final words of the landowner unmask their deeper problem: “Are you envious because I am good?” (literally, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”). In Matthew “the eye is the lamp of the body” (6:22), which should be plucked out if it causes one to sin (5:29). The attitude of the grumbling servants distorts their view of the world. As ever with envy, an act of goodness and generosity to others blinds people to their own and others’ good fortune.
The parable summons us to believe that God’s justice played out in this world is not limited by human conceptions of strict mathematical judgment, by which reward is in proportion to effort or merit. Mercy and goodness challenge us, as they did the workers in the parable, to move beyond justice even though they do not exist at the expense of justice. God’s ways are not human ways. The categories of worth and value by which humans separate themselves from others are reversed in God’s eyes. When divine freedom is limited by human conceptions of God’s goodness, people may never be able to experience undeserved goodness. Not to rejoice in the benefits given others is to cut ourselves off from those benefits we have received. Our eyes too become evil.