In today’s Gospel, we read the parable of the generous landowner, which builds on themes of mercy using images of economic and social disparities. This parable has several interpretive possibilities.
Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who pays all his workers the same daily wage, even though the employees did not work the same amount of time. Some worked all day, while others worked a partial day. Still others worked only one hour. Yet the landowner pays them all for a full day. One of the full-day workers criticizes the landowner, noting the perceived unfairness of this practice. But the landowner rebuffs the criticism, instead condemning envy and affirming generosity and equality.
’You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ (Mt 20:4)
How can you promote a fair, living wage for all people?
What actions can you take to be more generous?
What can you do to promote life?
Since several of Matthew’s parables are focused on final judgment, this parable could be interpreted eschatologically. The landowner would symbolize God’s generosity in judging. The people who worked all day could be those who have been faithful throughout their lives, and the people who worked the least might be the most sinful people, who eventually came to live righteously. In this interpretation, the parable would show God’s openness to all, even rewarding the last before the first. This idea finds support in the first reading from Isaiah, which highlights God’s mercy in forgiveness. Matthew’s parable also has echoes of Luke’s parable of the prodigal son.
Yet this parable can also be interpreted as a statement about the dignity of work and the importance of a just wage. Such a reading might be more compelling today, especially in light of Catholic social teaching and current economic hardships.
Often the equal pay at the end of the parable is highlighted, but the landowner is generous before then. After hiring the first round of employees, he encounters more unemployed people and hires them. He continues the practice multiple times until the evening, when presumably there were no remaining people in the marketplace. This shows the employer’s willingness to hire as many workers as are in need of employment.
Many people are unemployed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which only exacerbated the precarious economic circumstances many faced beforehand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of June 2020, 17.8 million people were unemployed, up from 12 million in February. Many others are underemployed, working reduced hours or temporarily furloughed. Today’s Gospel should inspire people with hiring power to be creative and innovative in creating space for people in need of work.
Likewise, this parable affirms that minimum wages must be living wages. When the landowner pays the same wage to everyone, he does not cheat those who worked the longest. Instead, he compensates everyone for working that day so that those who worked the least are still able to live on what they earned. As of July 2020, the federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, which is not a living wage. Movements like the Fight for $15 are necessary so that people can live, supporting themselves and their families.
In today’s Gospel, the landowner could have given alms, but instead he is generous by making just work and wages available to all, enabling people to live with dignity through their own labor. This reminds us that just labor practices are a pro-life issue that should be considered as we discern our election choices. Wages allow people to eat, clothe themselves, have shelter and health care—all essential resources for life.