In Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 20:1-16a), Jesus tells another parable, this one about a landowner and the laborers he hires to work in his vineyard. If Jesus was talking about hourly wages and eight-hour days, we might find ourselves sympathizing with the ones who worked all day and yet received the same wage as the ones who only worked one hour. But the parable is not about that. It is about the kingdom of heaven. And that changes how we are to hear this parable.
In the parable, the landowner decides to pay the laborers who were hired last, first. In his generosity, he pays them the same amount that the ones who were hired first, which causes grumbling among the latter group. But if you take the “wage” as entrance into the kingdom, there is no way for one person or group of persons to get “more” of a wage! If I get into heaven, by the grace of God, there’s nothing more to get. And even if you get away from thinking about eternal life, how much more can one receive from God than unconditional love culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus?
But we human beings are tempted to envy, and the desire for some higher status than the next person. Listen to the complaint that the first laborers make to the landowner: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us…” Over these past few months, when the country, along with contending with Covid-19, is looking at race relations and the issue of real equality, I have been asked by some people to explain the viewpoint of white supremacists. I can only respond with speculation, because I do not subscribe to the idea of white supremacy. So one theory I propose is that some people have what is called a “zero-sum game” mentality. This mentality often leads people to feel “If you gain, then somehow I lose (“you have made them equal to us”).”
But when it comes to the kingdom of heaven, there is no zero-sum game. There is no limit to God’s love and God’s promise of everlasting life! There is no limit to the extent God will go to save God’s people! If you get to heaven before I do, that doesn’t keep me from getting there. But, again, we human beings put such a premium on status. Dr. King preached about this with “The Drum Major Instinct.” But there is no superiority before God. As we hear from our first reading (Isaiah 55:6-9), God’s ways are above our ways, and God’s thoughts are above our thoughts. If we work for real justice and real peace, everyone can win!
Are we willing to let go of envy and concern about status? Can we have the same generosity of spirit towards others that God has with us, and can we recognize that another’s gain, especially when it comes to the demands of justice, does not constitute a loss on our part?
God is calling us to work in the “vineyard,” with the promise of the kingdom. May we accept the call, and welcome others to work with us.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.